By Sally Kestin
The state's sex offender laws will be the subject of scrutiny Tuesday as Florida legislators begin to discuss how to better protect the public from dangerous predators.
Among the wide-ranging reforms under consideration: broadening the definition of predators and creating an oversight board for sex offender monitoring.
Legislative leaders bumped fixing sex predator laws to the top of their agendas after a (fear mongering) Sun Sentinel investigation published in August found that rapists and pedophiles freed by the state went on to molest more than 460 children, rape 121 women and kill 14.
"There's nothing we're not going to look at,'' said Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. "These are the most violent and the most predatory among us and we want to make sure we do all that we can to keep them off the streets as long as possible.''
Committees in the Florida House and Senate will begin to discuss making changes to sex offender laws at two hearings Tuesday.
The 1999 Jimmy Ryce law, named in memory of a murdered South Florida boy, allows the state to keep the most dangerous sex offenders confined after their prison terms end. But the Sun Sentinel series found nearly 600 were convicted of new sex crimes after being reviewed under the law and let go.
Legislators will examine specific proposals, including:
- Allowing judges, prosecutors and arresting police agencies to refer sex offenders for possible confinement.
- Expanding the definition of violent sex crimes to include more offenses.
- Allowing prosecutors to seek confinement even when the review team of state psychologists disagrees.
- Requiring the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to monitor released predators and possibly even sex offenders who are not labeled "predators" and do not make the cut for confinement.
- Requiring judges to impose a minimum sentence of about 50 years for some sex crimes, depending on the circumstances and other factors.
Another idea is to allow sex offenders sentenced to county jails to be evaluated under the law. Currently, only prison inmates, minors in juvenile justice custody and adult offenders found not guilty by reason of insanity are reviewed.
That change would potentially catch offenders like _____, who is charged in the June abduction, rape and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle of Jacksonville. _____'s history included exposing himself to children and trying to lure girls to his van and kidnap them.
_____ was reviewed under the law twice, the second time in 2006 after returning to prison for a non-sex crime. A state review team found he did not qualify as a predator, and _____ went free.
He was arrested again in 2009 for impersonating a social worker and trying to persuade a woman to bring her granddaughter to a McDonald's to meet him. But because _____ was sentenced to jail instead of prison, the case did not trigger a predator review.
"That is a loophole that needs to be closed,'' said Sen. Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican who is working on sex offender legislation with Benacquisto. "I think there's things we can do to broaden the entities and individuals who can refer potential predators."
The Sexually Violent Predator Program at the state's Department of Children & Families decides which offenders should be recommended for continued confinement at a treatment center in Central Florida. Prosecutors determine whether to pursue the cases and must convince judges or juries that the offenders are likely to attack again if released.
A former prosecutor, Bradley said legislators are considering expanding the department's review team of mental health professionals to include input from sex crimes prosecutors and cops, and possibly victims, "to give some perspective or real-world impact.''
Last week, Dan Montaldi, head of the department's predator program, resigned after the Sun Sentinel questioned his record of low referrals and an email he wrote, urging his mental health peers to stand up for the rights of sex offenders.
Legislators said the criteria the state uses to determine whether an offender should remain confined should be reviewed. The Sun Sentinel found the department applies a narrow interpretation of a predator, focusing only on those with multiple offenses and victims, and passing over the rest.
"I think too many people have become risk-averse throughout the process, and we're letting people go simply because we're afraid to lose at trial,'' said Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. "We're choosing administratively not to proceed in cases where the evidence seems to suggest we should.''
Gaetz's committee will meet Tuesday afternoon and hear testimony from experts including prosecutors, police, victims' advocates and the Department of Children & Families. Earlier Tuesday, two Senate committees – Judiciary and Children, and Families and Elder Affairs – are scheduled to hold a joint session on sex offender reforms.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, a member of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said the state should consider providing sex offender treatment to inmates in prison and creating a sex offender review board to oversee policies.
"We should find out how our money is spent,'' said the Boca Raton Democrat. "This whole thing needs a lot more oversight than we have right now.''
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