TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Senate recently passed a package of bills designed to strengthen sexual predator laws, and Florida is now solidifying itself as one of the toughest states on sex offenders.
The four bills passed unanimously Tuesday are designed to tighten loopholes in a law that allows the state to civilly commit the most dangerous sexual offenders once they've finished their prison terms.
More offenders could be reviewed if the measures become laws, including people serving jail sentences for sex crimes. Right now, only people convicted of felonies can be reviewed for commitment.
Prosecutors and victim advocates would also be part of the review process.
Another bill will also create a 50-year mandatory sentence for people who rape children, the developmentally disabled and the elderly. The mandatory minimum for raping children is now 25 years.
"We all remember children like Cherish Perrywinkle, abducted from a Walmart at age 8 and raped, strangled, and her 60-pound body -- of all places -- found behind a church," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said as the session began Tuesday.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Flagler County, sponsored one of the bills.
"Recent events have shown we need to do more to keep these criminals away from our children. Through this legislative package, the Florida Senate has taken steps necessary to ensure sex offenders are kept behind bars for longer periods of time, and that once they are allowed back into society, they are closely monitored," Bradley said.
Richard Kurtiz, a former prosecutor, says he believes one of the changes being made to the laws could have saved Cherish Perrywinkle. Registered sex offenders in county jail like Donald Smith, who was arrested for Perrywinkle's murder, are not committed for treatment after being released.
Kurtiz said with the new regulations, Smith would have been in civil commitment and court ordered into treatment at a hospital.
"Because he came out of county jail as opposed to state prison, there was no option to have him civilly committed," said Kurtiz. "Now if you're in county jail, we can have you civilly committed."
Diena Thompson, mother of Somer Thompson, traveled from her home in Orange Park to witness the passage of the Senate bills. Seven-year-old Somer was abducted in 2009 while walking home from school, sexually assaulted and murdered. Since her daughter's death, Thompson has become an advocate for increasing protections against sex offenders and sexually violent child predators.
"It's absolutely tough, also though good, because they're actually doing something about it now," Thompson said.
"It's an important day, historic for the state of Florida. Florida's going to be scorched Earth for these sexual predators," Bradley said. "What it means is, as close to zero tolerance as the law will allow. It means we're going to have the toughest laws in the nation. We're going to close every loophole."
Thompson mouthed the words "thank you" to Bradley and the entire chamber after the Senate passed the bills.
"Diena is special person I've gotten to know," Bradley said. "Her strength of character, she is resolved to make a difference so that someone perhaps others won't have to suffer as she has suffered. And today is a solemn day, a special day. Hopefully we can keep this from happening again."
"Obviously, these rules they're passing, these laws wouldn't have changed it for Somer," Thompson said. "But unfortunately, I can't just fight for the Somers. I have to fight for the Cherishes and the other children that fortunately don't end up murdered."
The governor must now sign the bill, and Bradley's hope is that things move swiftly -- as swiftly as this legislation did following last summer's kidnapping and killing of Cherish.
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