Florida lawmakers want to toughen laws against sexual offenders

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauDecember 18, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Outraged by cases involving repeat sexually violent predators, four Florida senators filed bills Tuesday to signal an aggressive approach to protecting the state’s children.

“Together these bills will make Florida scorched earth for those who seek to harm our children,” Senate President Don Gaetz said in a statement, calling the legislation a “centerpiece” of a joint House and Senate agenda.

Filing four bills on one day shows the Senate is taking a “coordinated bipartisan and comprehensive approach,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who filed the legislation along with Sens. Greg Evers, R-Baker; Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

The bills tackle issues including length of sentences and better evaluations, changes that impact both the criminal justice system and Florida’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, which falls under the Department of Children & Families.

Bradley called the issue “very personal and very raw. We lost two precious children in our communities over the past three years” due to sexually violent predators.

Cherish Perrywinkle, 8, was abducted in June from a Jacksonville Walmart, raped and murdered. Her accused killer, Donald Smith, was a registered sex offender, had been evaluated twice and let go. Under the proposed legislation, he would not have been released in light of his previous crimes.

Somer Thompson, a Jacksonville 7-year-old, was abducted walking home from her school in 2009. Her body was found in a Georgia landfill and in February 2012, Jarred Harrell, 26, was sentenced to six life sentences without parole for abduction, rape and murder.

Bradley’s proposal (SB 526) requires the court to order community supervision after release from prison for certain sexual offenses and increases the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor offenses.

The legislation “empowers probation offices to watch more sex offenders and to watch them for a longer period of time,” Bradley said.

The proposals come after hearings with victims and child advocates, law enforcement, medical professionals and other experts in the House and Senate stemming from a series published this year in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper.

“Some really bad people have fallen through the cracks,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, who noted the Senate bills “are in line with a lot of the thinking we’ve had on the House side. We’ve been working hand-in-hand through the entire process.”

Other proposed legislation:

• SB 528, by Evers, would require registered sexual predators to report vehicle information, Internet identifiers, palm prints, professional licenses and other identifiers.

• SB 522 by Grimsley, would require the sheriff to refer a prisoner who is serving a sentence in a county detention facility for civil commitment proceedings if the prisoner is a registered sexual offender or predator and has committed a sexually violent offense. It also would add a state attorney, law enforcement officer and victim’s advocate to a team evaluating offenders considered for civil commitment.

• SB 524, by Sobel, would better evaluate the psychologists evaluating sexual predators and shorten their contract from three to one years. It would also require colleges and universities to inform students about a sexual predator’s presence on campus.

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