Florida gets tough on sexual predators

Associated PressApril 1, 2014 

The Florida Legislature is back in session. Bay News 9 Photo

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott signed four bills Tuesday to keep the most violent sexual offenders locked up longer and close loopholes in a law that allows the state to send predators to a high-security treatment center even after they’ve finished their prison sentences.

The bills were a priority for Democrats and Republicans in both chambers and were largely inspired by the death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, whose photo was held behind Scott as he signed the bills. Authorities said Perrywinkle was abducted and killed by a repeat sexual offender less than a month after he finished a jail sentence in a case where he targeted another young girl.

“As a father of two girls and the grandfather of three little boys, I think about how the legislation I’m signing today will affect Florida’s families. It will make Florida safer,” Scott said. “I want Florida to be the best state in the nation for raising a family and this legislation will help make this a reality.”

The wide-ranging package creates a mandatory 50-year sentence for people who rape children under 12, the developmentally disabled and senior citizens. That doubles the current mandatory sentence for the most violent sexual offenders. It also changes the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows the psychiatric review of sexually violent offenders after they finish their prison sentences. Those considered too dangerous are then committed to a high-security treatment center.

Lawmakers began looking at the Jimmy Ryce Act after Cherish’s death and a South Florida Sun Sentinel series that researched offenders who were reviewed for civil commitment but ended up being set free. It found 594 offenders committed new crimes, some the day they were released, including 14 killings. The released prisoners also were later caught molesting 460 children and raping 121 women.

“Florida will not be a catch-and-release state as it relates to violent sexual predators,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar to loud applause. Cherish was abducted from a Jacksonville Wal-Mart, raped and strangled. Her body was found the next day.

Donald Smith is charged with murder in her killing. Smith had been reviewed twice before for civil commitment and allowed to remain free. He was released from jail the month before the killing but wasn’t eligible for another review. Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal in a case where he made obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonated a Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator to try to get access to her.

State lawmakers called the new laws some of the toughest in the country. It will allow referral for civil commitment review regardless of whether the offender is serving a jail or prison sentence. It also requires investigators, prosecutors and victim advocates be involved in the review process.

Sexual predators and offenders will also have to provide law enforcement agencies with any Internet usernames they use, as well as information about their passports, immigration status, professional licenses and all vehicles registered at their address, including those of friends and relatives, when they register as sex offenders.

The statute of limitations will be eliminated for molesting children younger than 16. Right now, molesters can’t be prosecuted if the crimes are reported more than three years later.

The most sexually dangerous offenders will also have to serve their entire sentences and not be allowed a shorter sentence for good behavior.

Sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book took a break from a 1,500-mile sexual abuse awareness walk across Florida, including a stop in Bradenton, to attend the ceremony. Book has advocated for laws to increase penalties for sexual offenders, help victims and prevent abuse for 13 years, the first as a 17-year-old still recovering from years of being raped by her nanny.

But she said she’s never seen a year where the Legislature has acted so quickly to address problems with sexual predators, a subject she said lawmakers used to have a hard time talking about.

“When we first started talking about these things it was like, `Shhhh,’” Book said, holding a finger to her lips. “We’re here today talking about these issues and people are looking at them, and that’s how we shine into the darkness and prevent and protect those kids from having to go through went I went through or what any of the survivors I’ve met along the way have had to go through.”

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