By RYAN BENK
Fernandina Beach Republican Representative Janet Adkins held a town hall meeting in her district last summer, shortly after the abduction and murder of a Jacksonville girl by a registered sexual predator. Since that gathering, both houses of the Florida Legislature worked in concert to create a package of bills dealing with sexually violent predators and sexual offenders. Those proposed measures, likely to pass, mostly deal with the monitoring of cooperative registrants. But Adkins told the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Monday the patchwork of new bills left something out – a plan to wrangle those who flee the registry altogether.
“This bill creates the sexual predator and sexual offender strike force within the office of the Attorney General. The purpose of this strike force would be to shine a very bright light on those registered sexual offenders and sexual predators who have absconded from supervision,” Adkins said.
The team would work much like other task forces within the Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General would serve as the board’s Chair, the Executive Director of the Department of Law Enforcement as Vice Chair and officials from the Department of Children and Families and various local law enforcement officials from around the state would make up the bulk. Their task? Compile local, state and federal lists of registry absconders to actively pursue. Dr. Suzzone Kline, the former head of the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, agrees with bill’s intent but, worried that creating a new task force might divert attention from preventing new crimes as the focus shifts to recapturing runaways.
“People that are already caught are less likely to reoffend than the ones that we haven’t identified yet. So, pulling our resources and making – doing bills to try identify people that we haven’t already identified, I think would serve our state better. But, I can certainly understand why people want to make sure they know where all the sex offenders are,” Kline said in a phone interview Monday.
And in a state that has close to 8-thousand registered predators and offenders, knowing where they all are is a Herculean task. However, estimates of the number of absconders remain comparatively low. According to the Department of Corrections, which oversees most of the efforts to recapture those who don’t meet their obligations, close to 380 offenders and predators have disappeared. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, though, puts that number much higher -- at close to 800. Adkins argues fixing that disparity is reason enough to create the strike force. What’s more, she said not pursuing registry truants sends the wrong message to criminals.
“Listen to say that it’s the law but we really don’t sort of mean it and if you break the law then we’re really not going to go after you, sends the absolute wrong message to these sexual offenders and sexual predators,” Adkins asserted.
But much of the bill’s debate in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee focused on another issue. Palm Springs Democratic Representative David Kerner wondered if allowing task force members to hold positions in local government could present a conflict of interest.
“This can be interpreted as an office that is being held by one of the members. Even though the legislature is prohibited from being on this particular strike force, if a local mayor or somebody that holds an office also holds this office, there could be a dual office holding issue,” Kerner said.
The Palm Springs Democrat wants to clarify that a strike force seat wouldn’t be considered an office and advised subsequent committees look into amending the bill to reflect that.