TALLAHASSEE — The brutal killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford five years ago today fueled the creation of a boogeyman in Florida politics: the sex offender.
The designation carries a loaded significance in the legislative process and efforts each year to further restrict the freedoms of sex offenders win broad support. This year is no different with proposed measures to require background checks on athletic coaches and forbid some sexual offenders from using the Internet.
But now — after time, a trial and the killer’s death have dissolved the zeal that spurred the Jessica Lunsford Act in 2005 — a number of lawmakers are rethinking how the state monitors sex offenders and whether current laws are really making children safer.
“The emotion and publicity and political science that comes into play after a horrific situation tends to create an overreaction,” said Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, a prosecutor.
The public knew Jessica as a Citrus County third-grader with a cute smile and a pink hat. Convicted sex offender John Couey, who unbeknownst to local authorities lived across the street, confessed to kidnapping, raping and burying her alive in a shallow grave about 100 yards from her home.
The law named in her honor ordered more electronic monitoring and registration of sex offenders, tougher prison sentences, and background checks for people who work at schools.
The effort spread nationwide to more than 30 states with the help of her father, Mark Lunsford, a truck-driver-turned-activist.
The attention also propelled city and county officials in Florida to implement tougher barriers prohibiting sex offenders from living or working near schools, playgrounds, bus stops and churches.
Combined with the Jimmy Ryce Act in 1998, which permitted the civil commitment of sexual predators for life, the efforts made Florida among the most restrictive states in the nation.
But recent studies and state statistics show the fear that propelled the laws doesn’t match reality.
“Across the country, studies are not showing changes in sex crime rates can be attributed to those policies,” said Dr. Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton who studies sex offenders. “Sex crimes against children are on the downslide — but since the 1990s.”
The number of people on Florida’s sex offender registry has increased nearly 50 percent in five years, now topping 53,500. Nationwide, registered sexual offenders top 700,000.
Even more telling, Florida now spends an additional $36 million a year on sex offender programs. But the number of inmates convicted for sex crimes has held steady in the five years since the Jessica Lunsford Act, according to Department of Corrections statistics.
And the laws have created unintended consequences. The restrictions on where sex offenders can reside made hundreds homeless and prompted dozens in Miami to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. And the requirements to register those convicted of lewd crimes put the sex offender label on people who authorities don’t deem a threat.
“There is no empirical support that restrictions on where sex offenders live prevents sexual abuse or re-offending,” said Levenson, a clinical social worker. “Not every person who commits a sex crime is a predatory pedophile.”
This is the message Jennifer Dritt, a leading victim’s advocate at the state Capitol preaches. As executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, Dritt supported tougher restrictions on sex offenders. But she said the lesson from the Jessica Lunsford case was misunderstood. Most sexual offenders are not strangers across the street. The overwhelming majority are those with familial authority.
“In a positive vein, (Jessica’s case) really raised awareness of sexual offender management issues,” Dritt said. “But I think it also sponsored a lot of knee-jerk reactions.”
Some lawmakers are starting to agree.
State Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, is sponsoring legislation to revamp Florida’s sex offender laws by implementing a “circle of safety” to protect children instead of strong residency restrictions on sexual offenders. The main provision of the bill (HB119) would prohibit sexual offenders from loitering within 300 feet of locations where children are present.
“Sometimes we focus on where those people live,” Glorioso said. “Where they are sleeping last night really isn’t the issue. It’s what they are doing when they are awake.”
He said he wants to protect children but readily acknowledges the problems in the existing laws. “These people, whether we like it or not, still have constitutional rights,” he said. “I don’t want to infringe upon their rights but I don’t want to jeopardize my kids either.”