House panel passes 'landmark legislation' against sexual predators

By By MARGIE MENZEL, The News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In an unusually bipartisan and bicameral effort, this week marked the passage of a series of bills designed to toughen Florida laws dealing with sexually violent predators.

Two House and two Senate panels passed bills cracking down on sex predators and sexual crimes against children, with the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee completing the effort on Thursday by approving five bills that correspond roughly to those passed earlier in the week by their Senate counterparts.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you're witnessing the beginning of landmark legislation in this state," said Rep. Ray Pilon, a Sarasota Republican and the panel's vice chairman.

Lawmakers are moving quickly on the issue and could approve the changes early in the upcoming legislative session.

They've been focused on it since August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that nearly 600 sexually violent predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex crimes -- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.

Lawmakers have also been focused on the June murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville. Sex offender Donald Smith, now 57, was accused of abducting, raping and strangling the child just three weeks after being released from jail on a lesser sex offense. Smith faces trial in May on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

"In the Perrywinkle case, let's be clear: the system failed," lobbyist Ron Book told the House panel.

The case has become a road map for policymakers looking to plug the holes that have allowed sexually violent predators to avoid civil commitment under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

"(Duval County) Sheriff (John) Rutherford's deputies knocked on that gentleman's door the day -- the day, the very day -- that the abduction and murder took place, but the deputy could not walk into the house," Book said, adding that after the murder, evidence was found that would have allowed Smith to be picked up, "and that child would be alive today."

By the terms of the Ryce Act -- named for a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995 -- the Department of Children and Families evaluates sex offenders before their release from prison. Those considered most likely to attack again aren't necessarily released after completing their prison sentences, but may be screened, evaluated and confined at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia until they aren't considered dangers to the community.

Book, whose daughter Lauren is a sexual abuse survivor, said Smith had been reviewed for civil commitment but released years ago. Smith had also served time for a number of sex-related offenses, including trying to lure a teenage girl into his van and impersonating a DCF worker in an effort to approach a younger one.

One of the bills passed Thursday, PCB 14-03, would require DCF to notify victims and the Department of Corrections upon the release of all offenders detained at the Florida Civil Commitment Center. It would also require DOC to compile recidivism data and submit it to the Legislature annually.

A second bill, PCB 14-04, would increase the amount of personal information that registered sexual predators and offenders must provide, including their vehicle information, Internet identifiers, passports, professional licenses and immigration status.

PCB 14-05 prevents sexually violent predators from serving a split sentence -- that is, from serving their prison terms, then being confined to the civil commitment center and having their community supervision run at the same time. Split sentencing allows an offender to walk out of the Arcadia facility without being subject to any monitoring at all -- a loophole that lawmakers are determined to close.

PCB-06 would create a process by which an offender sentenced to time in a local -- as opposed to a state prison -- could also be referred for civil commitment.

PCB-07 would eliminate the statute of limitations for cases involving a victim under 16 and an offender 18 years of age or older. It would also increase the mandatory minimum for "dangerous sexual felony offenders" -- those who have caused serious injury, used or threatened to use a deadly weapon or victimized more than one person -- from 25 to 50 years.

"If we've learned anything from the evidence, it's that many individuals who specifically go out and target the most vulnerable among us are simply wired differently," said Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. "And I would like to see them behind bars for 50 years -- minimally."

Four of the bills passed unanimously. Rep. Ronald Bracy, D-Orlando, was the sole vote against the fifth bill, PCB-07, saying he opposed mandatory minimums and believed judges should have discretion.

But most of the panel was adamant about giving Florida the harshest penalties in the nation for sexually violent crimes.

"If there is an opportunity to give them the death penalty, I would be all for it," said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami.

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