Maryland lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would prevent some convicted sexual offenders from automatically earning time off their sentences for good behavior.
The bill, called the Pava Marie LaPere Act, comes a little more than four months after the measure’s namesake was killed in Baltimore and a few weeks after city State’s Attorney Ivan Bates introduced the proposal at a news conference. The bill has won support from several co-sponsors in the Maryland House of Delegates.
If it passes and becomes law, the Pava Marie LaPere Act would alter who is eligible for Maryland’s early release system that allows some individuals in prison to earn what are called “diminution credits.” Specifically, individuals incarcerated for first-degree rape or a first-degree sexual offense would be excluded from earning those reduced-time credits, which can be garnered for “good conduct, work tasks, education and special projects or programs,” according to a nonpartisan outline of the bill.
Bates has pointed to the suspect in LaPere’s killing as an example of who should be excluded from getting their sentences reduced. A convicted felon and registered sex offender who was released early from prison with diminution credits in 2022, Jason Dean Billingsley, 32, also is charged in a separate case involving an alleged rape and arson in West Baltimore, which authorities believe he committed a few days before killing LaPere.
Bates joined LaPere’s parents, Frank and Caroline LaPere, to testify in favor of the bill in Annapolis. But the city state’s attorney’s work on behalf of the bill could be complicated by a petition from Billingsley’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Jason Rodriguez and District Public Defender for Baltimore Marguerite E. Lanaux, seeking to bar Bates from speaking about their client, his prior convictions and the pending case with the media or in public forums, according to a motion filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court in January.
In the petition, sometimes referred to as a “gag order,” Billingsley and his attorneys argue that the Pava Marie LaPere Act is “premised” upon Billingsley having committed the crime he’s accused of without first being tried in court. They also contend that Bates, who hosted the press conference introducing the bill, “repeatedly referenced” Billingsley by name, presumed his guilt and emphasized his past convictions, “none of which have been deemed admissible by the Court.”
“Mr. Billingsley has the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury and due process of law,” the motion states. A judge has yet to rule on the request, and Bates, through a spokesman, declined to comment on it.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Bates said he’s within his rights.
“The case law even says you’re allowed to have a fair trial in the community; you’re not allowed to have a private trial,” he said. “And that appears to be what their request for the gag order is, a private trial.”
He added that he will not try the case himself due to a scheduling conflict.
The bill drew emotional testimony from LaPere’s loved ones, who said she worked tirelessly during her life to reverse inequities in society and empower diverse communities. They said this bill honors her legacy.
“We celebrated her birthday two weeks ago,” Frank LaPere said during testimony, fighting back tears. “Her loss is tragic and horrific, and I firmly believe it could have been avoided.”
After their testimony, LaPere’s parents said they are driven to pick up where their daughter left off, championing entrepreneurship and Baltimore City.
“She was for justice; she was for righting the wrongs,” Caroline LaPere said about her daughter. “And her strong voice and wonderful personality aren’t here, but I’ll pick up whatever slack I can.”
State Sen. President Bill Ferguson said he supported the measure.
“There is very good reason to have extra eyes on diminution credits and make sure that something like what happened this past year can’t happen again,” the Baltimore Democrat said Tuesday.
State Del. Elizabeth Embry, the House bill’s co-sponsor, said she will propose two tweaks to the bill: ensuring that diminution credits earned in pretrial detention would also be disallowed, and applying the new rules only to cases going forward.
A companion version of the bill filed in the state Senate by Sen. Will Smith already reflects those changes, Embry said.
Several of LaPere’s close friends and acquaintences also traveled to Annapolis to offer their support for the measure. Speaking to reporters before the hearing, Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway, who said he had met LaPere the day she died, said of the diminution credit system: “Unfortunately, it allowed someone who was not ready to be out on the streets to be out in the streets.”
Meanwhile, at least one legal expert has called the concept into question, saying its impact may be more limited in scope.
“I’m not convinced that this is a policy that will make us safer, but I understand everyone’s impulse to think about how much we didn’t want this person to benefit from the policy,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
The incentive programs are for people who are eventually going to get out of prison, he added. The more incarcerated people who are rewarded for good behavior, the more likely the prison workforce and other inmates are kept safe.
“The trauma that happens inside makes us all less safe when incarcerated people are released,” Jaros said.
Lanaux, the district public defender, said eliminating time-off credits for some sex offenders will not change the fact that they will be released one day. She said the bill could also have the “reverse” impact of its intent by removing an incentive for good behavior and stamping out an opportunity for rehabilitation or reform.
And Gabriel Ellenberger, a public defender, said individuals who are incarcerated have been shown to improve with treatment and “evidence-based” programming inside the prison system — though she noted those programs aren’t always available. And they might not have the motivation to seek out available programs without the possibility of early release, she said.
Still, some state delegates said the bill would restore justice to survivors and victims of sexual assault and other “heinous” crimes.
“You can’t listen to Mr. and Mrs. LaPere and feel that the system is working beautifully,” said state Del. Aaron Kaufman, a Montgomery County Democrat.
After being identified as the suspect in LaPere’s killing, Billingsley, of West Baltimore, led authorities on a dayslong chase that ended with his arrest in Bowie. Police warned that he was armed, dangerous and would “do anything he can to cause harm.”
Police believe Billingsley, posing as a maintenance man, sought entry into a rooming house on Sept. 19. When no one answered the door, he kicked it in, held two people at gunpoint and then handcuffed and duct-taped them.
Authorities believe Billingsley raped the woman and cut her neck. He doused her and the man with liquid, then set them on fire. The couple survived and were hospitalized, along with a child in the house.
A few days later, police found LaPere dead on the roof of her Mount Vernon apartment building with signs of blunt-force trauma to the head. Authorities said video evidence captured Billingsley entering the apartment building, following LaPere upstairs and then leaving that same night.
It was not initially clear why police did not alert the public to be on the lookout for Billingsley after the alleged crimes on Sept. 19. In October, Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley said authorities did not want to alert the suspect that they were looking for him and hoped to protect the victims from retaliation.
Billingsley also has a 2009 conviction for first-degree assault and a 2011 conviction for second-degree assault. He pleaded guilty to a first-degree sex offense in 2015 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison with all but 14 years suspended. With good-time credits, he was released in October 2022.
This article has been updated to clarify Gabriel Ellenberger said that while treatment programs can be effective, they are not always available.
Baltimore Banner reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article.