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- 2013 - December - 18th -

Senate pushes tougher sex offender laws

By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida

Florida senators Tuesday filed a package of bills that Senate President Don Gaetz said would make the state “scorched earth” for sexually violent predators and become a centerpiece of the 2014 legislative session.

His language echoed lawmakers’ outrage after the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in August that nearly 600 sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses — including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.

“Over the last several months, we watched in disbelief and disgust as news accounts detailed stories of sexually violent predators slipping through the cracks of our criminal justice and civil commitment system and committing unthinkable repeat offenses against Florida’s most vulnerable children,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, wrote to senators as the four bills were filed. 

The bills would “widen the net” to apprehend, punish and monitor sexually violent predators, in the words of Sen. Denise Grimsley, one of the Senate committee leaders from both parties sponsoring the measures.

“It really is a bipartisan effort,” said Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, whose jurisdiction was rocked in June by the high-profile murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. 

And by all accounts, the Senate and House are speeding toward a comprehensive effort in both chambers. 

“If we have the strongest laws in place in the country to identify the worst of the worst, I think we can reduce the number of these offenses,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who is the son of the Senate president. “And most importantly, we won’t have to go and say to the parents of a child victim that we had the person in our custody, but we let them go and they harmed again.”

The measures follow a series of legislative hearings after the Sun Sentinel reported that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state’s Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl. 

By the terms of the Jimmy Ryce Act — named for a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995 — the Department of Children and Families evaluates sex offenders before their releases from prison.

Those considered most likely to attack again aren’t necessarily released after completing their prison sentences, but may be screened, evaluated and confined at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia until they aren’t considered dangers to the community.

Lawmakers heard from an array of experts that those precautions weren’t enough.

For instance, Rutherford told lawmakers his officers had spoken with Donald Smith — now charged with kidnapping, raping and strangling Perrywinkle — on the very day of her murder.

Smith was released from jail as a sex offender three weeks before Perrywinkle’s death.

One of the bills by a Jacksonville-area lawmaker, would close several of the loopholes in that case.

Senate Bill 526 by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, would increase the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sexual offenses formerly classified as lewd and lascivious. It would ban gain-time for people who commit certain sexual offenses and require courts to order community supervision after release from prison for those convicted of certain offenses.

Rutherford pointed to another portion of Bradley’s bill, which deals with the post-release supervision of sexual predators in DCF custody as part of the civil commitment process.

Currently, those offenders participate in civil commitment and community supervision simultaneously.

But the bill would require them to be under community supervision after their release from civil commitment.

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