Pointing to examples of children being raped and murdered, the Florida House unanimously passed four bills to crack down on sexually violent predators, preparing the measures for Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.
Scott has already said he looks forward to signing the bills, which were approved last week by the Senate.
“I think people could argue about recidivism data ’til they were blue in the face, but we know one certain fact: No one has ever raped a child while sitting in a state prison,” said Florida House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “And so if we can keep folks in prison longer, we can keep our streets safer.”
Gaetz sponsored the House version of one of the bills (SB 526), which would increase the penalties for sexual battery and lewd or lascivious offenses against children. That and the other bills are designed to close the loopholes in a 1999 law aimed at putting sexually violent predators in civil confinement after they serve their prison terms.
The march toward the bills’ passage began in August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state’s Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl. Since 1999, 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.
The push for change was heightened when legislative committees held hearings last fall and learned that Donald Smith, who was charged with kidnapping, raping and murdering 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville in June, was a recently-released sex offender.
“Had this been on the books, that would never have happened,” said state Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton. “We can’t bring her back, but we can make sure (Cherish) did not die in vain.”
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.
However, lawmakers found loopholes in the law.
“Our (Sexually Violent Predator) Program was one of the most failed in the nation, but today we begin a fresh start in the state of Florida,” said state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. “These changes are only the first step in Florida’s fresh start, but they will pave the way for comprehensive reform.”
Three of the bills are ready to go to Scott, while one must return to the Senate for a final vote because of a technical change made in the House.
The House passed the following bills:
- SB 526, which would increase to 50 years the minimum mandatory sentence for dangerous sexual felony offenders. It would require courts to impose split sentences in which offenders convicted of specified sexual offenses are sentenced to two years of community supervision after serving their terms of imprisonment.
- SB 522, which would create a process for the potential civil commitment of sexual predators sentenced to jail time. Currently, offenders can only be referred for civil commitment after prison terms. Smith, for instance, was released from the Duval County Jail three weeks before Perrywinkle’s murder.
The bill also requires that when an offender is released from DCF custody, the department must notify victims, the Department of Corrections, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the sheriff in the county where the person intends to reside.
- SB 524, which would create enhanced standards and training for the multidisciplinary team that assesses whether a convicted sexual offender meets the clinical definition of a sexually violent predator. It also would require private and public colleges and universities to inform students and employees about a Florida Department of Law Enforcement sexual-predator and offender registry website and a toll-free telephone number that gives access to information about sexual predators and offenders.
- SB 528, which would require sexual predators and offenders to provide a wide range of identifying information when they register, including details on the vehicles to which they have access. It also would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to notify the clerk of court if a person petitioning for a name change has registered as a sexual predator or offender. This is the bill that will return to the Senate for a final vote.