House approves tougher sentences and rules for sexual predators

Violent sexual offenders would face longer sentences and more scrutiny after their release from prison, under four bills approved Wednesday in the Florida House.

It’s an election year, and legislation bolstering the state’s sexual predator laws are enjoying strong bipartisan support.

“It’s a proud moment,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after the votes.

The bills come after the South Florida Sun Sentinel last year published a series of articles investigating the conduct of violent sexual offenders after they were released under the Jimmy Ryce law, intended to protect the public from the most dangerous ex-convicts. The newspaper found that 594 offenders who were released since 1999 were convicted of new sex crimes. They molested more than 460 children, raped 121 women and killed 14 people.

The four bills approved Wednesday included three Senate bills that passed that chamber on the first day of the annual legislative session, in addition to an amended version of a Senate bill that will be returned for a vote.

“This will make Florida the safest state in America to raise a family,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. “And the worst state for violent sexual predators.”

Gaetz took up the companion to his House bill, SB 526, by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. It imposes a mandatory sentence of 50 years for those convicted of the rape or torture of children, seniors or the disabled. A staff analysis said carrying out this provision would cost the state about $41 million by 2020.

Citing numbers from the Sun Sentinel story, Gaetz said the bill, which next goes to Gov. Rick Scott, “keeps the bad guys in prison for a heck of a lot longer.”

The other bills that passed were:

• SB 522 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, which was taken up by the House sponsor, Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast. It adds more notification requirements when an offender is in custody or released from the Florida Civil Commitment Center, the treatment center in Arcadia that offenders must go to after completing their prison terms.

• SB 524 by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that was taken up by the House sponsor, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. It requires colleges and universities to notify students about the presence of sexual predators on campuses.

• SB 528 by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, that was taken up by Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral. The bill requires registered sex offenders to provide personal information, such as Internet user names, vehicle tag numbers and passport numbers to law enforcement. Eagle amended the bill Wednesday to include a requirement that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles monitor the records of any sexual predator or offender whose name it receives from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That amendment must still be approved by the Senate.

With these popular bills approved, Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said there is still more work to be done.

He mentioned a study by the Department of Children and Families that said more than 36,000 summer camps throughout Florida don’t screen counselors, leaving children vulnerable to sexual predators.

“I’m hoping we can support a bill that looks at that,” Pafford said.