ORANGE PARK, Fla. - The deaths of Cherish Perrywinkle last year and Somer Thompson in 2009 prompted a Clay County lawmaker to sponsor one of four bills pending in this year's legislative session that would strengthen existing laws regulating sexual offenders and predators.
The laws would increase the penalties for sex offenders, make it easier for police to monitor them if they are released, would require the court to order community supervision after from release, and increase the jail sentences for adults on minor offenses.
On Monday, a Florida Senate pane unanimously passed three of those bills -- the first in a series of measures expected to unfold across four committees and both legislative chambers this week.
"When you see four bills being filed at the same time, it shows we are serious about the issue and we are taking a comprehensive, bipartisan approach to the issue," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Clay County, who introduced one of the bills.
Bradley says the deaths of 8-year-old Somer and 8-year-old Cherish are personal and painful to Northeast Florida families. Cherish's accused killer, Donald Smith, had a history of sex crimes dating back to 1977 and was on supervised released when he abducted, raped and killed the girl last June. The new law would make it tougher for offenders like Smith to slip through the cracks.
In August, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that nearly 600 sexually violent predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses --- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders
"We want Florida to be scorched Earth when it comes to these monsters," Bradley said.
Bradley asked Somer's mother, Diena Thompson, to address legislators in the coming weeks.
"It's surreal a lot of times," she said. "I can't believe that people that are that high up in our government know our story, and they are actually now taking a hard look at it, and saying, 'This is definitely something we are looking at.'"
Thompson says talking to lawmakers in Tallahassee about what happened to Somer will be painful, but it is worth it to help prevent something similar from happening to other children.
"I don't want to let anyone else down," Thompson said. "I feel like I let my own self down. I just I want to be there for the people."
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