By Bill Cotterell
The number of sex offenders registering with police has risen four times faster than Florida's population, but state and federal law enforcement agencies have dramatically cut the number who get away, says a new legislative study of rules imposed since the rape and murder of a little girl horrified the state in 2005.
However, homeless and transient sex offenders take up a lot of police time and paperwork, and about one-fourth of offenders who comply with registration laws can't afford the sign-up fee or lack documentation to verify their arrests. In addition to transient sex offenders, many of the addresses listed by those registering turn out to be jails or homeless shelters, the report said.
The Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability did a statewide review of how the 2005 Jessica Lunsford Act has worked. The law, named for a 9-year-old Homosassa girl who was kidnapped raped and murdered, requires life sentences for anyone assaulting children under 12, and a 2007 revision added new rules for those classified as predators.
All offenders are required to check in with police every six months, and those classified as predators have to check in every 90 days -- updating identification, addresses, phone numbers phone and e-mail addresses, work locations and other data.
"The number of registered sex offenders residing in Florida communities has grown by 28 percent, from 18,607 in 2005 to 23,813 in 2012," the OPPAGA report said. "During this same time period, the state population grew by roughly 6.5 percent."
OPPAGA said the number of predators almost doubled -- from 1,222 in 2005 to 2,400 last year.
But the number of registered offenders absconding from official supervision has fallen from 1,214 when the act was passed to 646 last year. The number of predators not reporting in edged up from 45 in 2005 to 47 last year, OPPAGA said.
Predators are distinguished from other offenders as those "who present an extreme threat to public safety, as demonstrated through repeated sex offenses, the use of physical violence or preying on child victims."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which maintains a public registry of sex offenders, told OPPAGA analysts that several factors have contributed to the decline in numbers of criminals who abscond or otherwise lose contact with police.
"These factors include the department's hiring of absconder analysts to actively monitor the sex offender registry to identify absconders quickly," said the report. "In addition, FDLE and local sheriffs' offices are working with the U.S. Marshals Service to locate absconded sex offenders."
Sex-offense statutes also include restrictions on where offenders can live, requirements for electronic monitoring and prohibition of contact with children.
Tracking homeless, transient and indigent offenders with oft-changing addresses remains a chronic problem, even when they try to comply with registration laws, OPPAGA said. It said the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles processed 22,329 identification requests for sex offenders between Aug. 1, 2011, and July 31, 2012, and 23.3 percent of them -- 5,194 offenders -- either couldn't furnish required documentation or pay fees ranging from $25 to $54.25, depending on whether they wanted a driving license or other ID card.
Sheriffs' offices also reported that locating transient offenders "was a major impediment" in verifying addresses they provided. The report said some counties require transients to call police weekly, in addition to showing up in person quarterly or semi-annually, as required by their offense records.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey thanked OPPAGA for its analysis of the sex-offender registry.
"Despite the complexities and challenges of administering the system, Florida remains a national model," Bailey wrote in his reply to the OPPAGA report. "The Florida registry maintains a remarkably low percentage of absconded registrants; it has decreased from 4.37 percent in 2005 to 1.23 percent, despite the 65 percent increase in number of registrants."
- Report No. 12-12: Registered Sex Offenders in Florida Communities Increased to Over 23,000; Transient Offenders Present Challenges (PDF)