The Florida Senate moved quickly to strengthen state laws dealing with sexual offenders, passing four bills within hours of the start of the 2014 legislative session that will close loopholes allowing dangerous offenders to go free. Two heartrending abductions involving the rape and murder of young girls provider an emotional backdrop to the votes. All four bills were approved unanimously and we applaud the clear message that Florida will not tolerate predators who prey on our most vulnerable residents.
The Senate measures would close loopholes in the 1998 Jimmy Ryce Act that allows the state to confine predators to civil commitment centers after serving sentences and doubles the mandatory minimum sentence for child rapists and sexually dangerous offenders to 50 years. Offenders would also be required to provide a wide array of information upon their release, including vehicle registrations, Internet user names, passport information, immigration status and professional licenses. The Florida House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on the bills, which will then go to Gov. Rick Scott.
The impetus for the tougher treatment of sexual predators and offenders were two cases, one in Jacksonville and another in Orange Park. The Jacksonville case involves a suspect who is a repeat sexual offender who was allowed to remain free despite two recent reviews by a state board overseeing civil commitments of convicted offenders. Donald Smith has been charged with raping and strangling 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in June 2013, after abducting her from a Walmart. Smith was set free due to a loophole in the Ryce Act that allows the state to confine offenders to civil commitment centers only if they were in prison. Smith had served a jail, not prison, sentence for a misdemeanor conviction for making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonating a Florida Department of Children and Families investigator.
Florida already has sexual offender registries that allow residents to find out where offenders live in their neighborhoods (https://offender.fdle.state.fl.us) and now detains those deemed sexually violent and likely to reoffend at the 720-bed treatment center in Arcadia. However, lawmakers cited an August 2013 South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation that found the state had released convicted sexual offenders who went on to molest 460 children, rape 121 women and kill 14 victims. The Sun-Sentinel reported six offenders committed sexual assaults on the same day there were released from prison. (To read the report, go to interactive.sun-sentinel.com/jimmy-ryce/investigation.html)
Punishing sex offenders is only part of the solution. Parents must communicate with their children about this difficult topic. That goes beyond warning them about strangers, because data shows a vast majority of offenders were known by their victims. In the Perrywinkle case, the victim’s mother drove to Walmart with the suspect after he promised to buy the family some clothes. The offender search website referenced above also contains safety tips and parent guides.
We know even the tough news measures to be enacted soon won’t put an end to such tragic crimes, but they address the weaknesses revealed in the Sun-Sentinel investigation and will keep many would-be reoffenders off the street and their would-be victims that much safer.