TALLAHASSEE -- After a disturbing newspaper investigation and the murder of a Jacksonville girl, Florida legislative leaders vowed to get tough this year on sexually violent predators.
And Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott moved quickly to sign a package of bills aimed at keeping sexually violent predators locked up so they can’t attack again.
“Florida’s going to be scorched earth for these monsters,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who worked on the bills.
Scott signed the package (SB 522, SB 524, SB 526 and SB 528) during a ceremony in the Capitol’s Cabinet meeting room that included sheriffs, prosecutors, lawmakers, sexual-assault victims and victims’ family members. Scott and other speakers said the bills will make Florida’s children safer.
Supporters hope the bills will prevent a repeat of incidents such as the kidnapping, rape and murder last year of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville, a case that drew widespread attention. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, has been arrested in the case.
More broadly, supporters hope the legislation will address problems raised in an investigative report by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The newspaper reported that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state’s Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl. Also, it found that since 1999, nearly 600 sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses --- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
“I am very pleased that the Legislature and the Governor are acting to improve the Jimmy Ryce Act and to make this the toughest state in the country for sexual predators to reside,” said Don Ryce, Jimmy’s father, in a statement.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the bills will mean Florida will not be a “catch and release state” for sexual predators.
The bills make numerous changes to the state’s criminal and civil-commitment laws. As an example, SB 526, which was spearheaded by Bradley and Gaetz, would lead to mandatory minimum sentences of 50 years in prison for what are known as dangerous sexual felony offenders.
Taking part in the bill-signing ceremony was Lauren Book, a sexual-abuse survivor who has founded a group called Lauren’s Kids. Also taking part was Diena Thompson, whose 7-year-old daughter Somer disappeared in Clay County in 2009 while walking home from school. The child’s body was later found in a South Georgia landfill.
Bradley, who lives in Clay County, pointed to the Thompson and Perrywinkle cases and said the sexual-predator issue is “personal and raw” to people in Northeast Florida.
“We’ve been rocked by these awful, awful tragedies,’’ he said.