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Courts / Law

Tougher Sexual Predator Bills Progress

Rep._Ray_Pilon,_R-Sarasota.jpg

TALLAHASSEE - In an unusually bipartisan effort, the Legislature has moved forward a series of bills designed to toughen Florida laws dealing with sexually violent predators.

Two House and two Senate panels passed bills cracking down on sex predators and sexual crimes against children, with the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee completing the effort Thursday, by approving five rough counterpart bills.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you're witnessing the beginning of landmark legislation in this state," said Rep. Ray Pilon, a Sarasota Republican and the panel's vice chairman.

Lawmakers are moving quickly on the issue and could approve the changes early in the legislative session that starts next month.

Political leaders have been focused on the issue since August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that nearly 600 sexually violent predators released from prison were convicted of new sex crimes. That included more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.

Highlighting the problem was the June murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville. Sex offender Donald Smith, now 57, was accused of abducting, raping and strangling the child just three weeks after being released from jail on a lesser sex offense. Smith faces trial in May on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

"In the Perrywinkle case, let's be clear: the system failed," lobbyist Ron Book told the House panel.

The case has become a road map for policymakers looking to plug holes in the Jimmy Ryce Act that allowed sexually violent predators to avoid additional prison time.

"(Duval County) Sheriff (John) Rutherford's deputies knocked on that gentleman's door the day -- the day, the very day -- that the abduction and murder took place, but the deputy could not walk into the house," Book said, adding that after the murder, evidence was found that would have allowed Smith to be picked up, "and that child would be alive today."

The Ryce Act -- named for a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995 – allows the Florida Department of Children & Families to evaluate sex offenders before their release 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.

Book, whose daughter Lauren is a sexual abuse survivor, said Smith had been reviewed for civil commitment but released years ago. Smith also served time for a number of sex-related offenses, including trying to lure a teenage girl into his van and impersonating a DCF worker.

The bills passed this week include a variety of protections that include:

·         requiring DCF to notify victims and the Department of Corrections when offenders detained at the Florida Civil Commitment Center are released. Corrections also will compile recidivism data and submit it to the Legislature annually.

·         increasing what personal information registered sexual predators and offenders must provide, including vehicle information, Internet identifiers, passports, professional licenses and immigration status.

·         preventing sexually violent predators from serving a “split’ sentence where, after finishing a prison term, they concurrently serve civil commitment center and community supervision sentences.

·         creating a process by which an offender sentenced to time in a local and not state prison could also be referred for civil commitment.

·         eliminating the statute of limitations for cases involving a victim under 16 and an offender 18 years of age or older.  It also would increase the mandatory minimum for "dangerous sexual felony offenders" from 25 to 50 years.

"If we've learned anything from the evidence, it's that many individuals who specifically go out and target the most vulnerable among us are simply wired differently," said Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. "And I would like to see them behind bars for 50 years -- minimally."