TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate passed a package of bills Tuesday that will lock up child rapists longer, force sexual offenders to disclose more information and close loopholes that allow the most dangerous predators to avoid civil commitment after they’re punished for their crimes.
All four bills were approved unanimously and without debate on the first day of the 60-day legislative session. The Senate wanted to send a clear message that protecting people from sexual predators was its top priority. That message will be repeated in the House next week when it is expected to send the bills to Gov. Rick Scott at the first opportunity.
The mother of Somer Thompson, a 7-year-old Jacksonville-area girl who was kidnapped, raped and killed and her body dumped in a trash bin, was in tears in the Senate gallery as each of the bills passed. Just before the vote on the final bill, Republican Sen. Rob Bradley said, “This is for Somer.”
The wide-ranging package would make released sexual offenders list all cars registered to their address and double the mandatory minimum sentence for child rapists and sexually dangerous offenders to 50 years in prison. They will also strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment of sexual predators once they finish their prison terms. The law named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County, is designed to keep the most violent sexual predators locked up.
But it has become clear since it took effect in 1999 that there are loopholes.
“There are real monsters, and we’re going to put the monsters away for a real, real long time,” Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said after the bills passed.
Lawmakers in both chambers have said inspiration for strengthening the laws came from the death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle last June and a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation on sexual predators who were released only to commit more crimes.
Cherish was abducted from a Jacksonville Wal-Mart, was raped and strangled. Her body was found the next day. A repeat sexual offender, Donald Smith, is charged with murdering her. Smith had been reviewed twice before for civil commitment and allowed to remain free. He was released from jail the month before the killing but wasn’t eligible for another review. Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment, and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal in a case where he made obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonated a Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator to try to get access to her.
But when the bills become law, offenders can be referred for a civil commitment review whether they are serving jail or prison sentences. One of the measures also requires that the Department of Children and Families team that reviews offenders for commitment consult with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and victim advocates while making its determination.
The civil commitment team members would have to be evaluated regularly and could only work under one-year contracts. The Department of Corrections would be required to compile return to prison statistics on sexually violent offenders released from civil commitment.
Sexual predators and offenders would also have to provide law enforcement agencies with any Internet usernames they use, as well as information about their passports, immigration status, professional licenses and all vehicles registered at their address, including those of friends and relatives, when they register as sex offenders.
The statute of limitations would be eliminated for molesting children younger than 16. Right now, molesters can’t be prosecuted if the crimes are reported more than three years later.
The 50-year mandatory sentence would also apply to people who rape the developmentally disabled and the elderly. The most sexually dangerous offenders would also have to serve their entire sentences and not be allowed a shorter sentence for good behavior. Probation for offenders who are civilly committed would not begin until they are released from commitment. Now, probation time begins when they are released from prison and sometimes expires while they are in commitment.
“We have sent a message — if you’re a sexual predator, do not come to Florida,” said Sen Greg Evers, R-Baker. “If we catch you, we will lock you up. Not only will we lock you up, if you get out, we have made it clear we will know where you are. I don’t care if you’re living under a bridge or in an abandoned car, we will know your whereabouts.”
Diena Thompson was dressed in purple, her daughter Somer’s favorite color, and cried as the Senate acted.
“It’s long overdue but much appreciated. And we can’t just stop with changing laws. We need to prevent this. We need to educate our adults and we need to educate children,” she said. “We know that without a doubt that these people are going to reoffend against our children, and we have to combat against that.”