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Sex Crime Reform Starts Moving Through Florida Legislature

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — A Florida Senate panel on Monday unanimously passed three bills dealing with sexually violent predators and sexual crimes against children — the first in a series of measures expected to unfold across four committees and both legislative chambers this week.After a highly critical newspaper series and a fatal attack on a Jacksonville girl, both last summer, legislative leaders vowed to crack down on sexual predators, and that effort was evident in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"We want to send a message that if you do something to our children, you will spend time in jail — and it's not going to be a short time," said committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker and the sponsor of one of the bills.

Lawmakers have been focused on the issue since August, when 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.

What's more, lawmakers have a cautionary tale in the June murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville. Recently-released sex offender Donald Smith, 57, was accused of abducting, raping and strangling the child. He faces trial in May on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery; prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The shadow of Smith fell on Monday's discussion as lawmakers sought to plug loopholes that allowed him to be released.

Suzonne Kline, the former administrator of Florida's Sexually Violent Predator Program, urged the panel to consider the use of a risk assessment tool to determine which offenders are among the 10 percent she said were most likely to re-offend.

Before Perrywinkle's death, Smith had been arrested for a series of crimes against children, including impersonating an employee of the Florida Department of Children and Families in a failed attempt to kidnap a girl.

Kline said she had performed a risk assessment on Smith — only on paper, she said, noting that she never interviewed him in person — and that his score was "very high."

"And had the judge had that information available, I firmly believe that he would not have agreed to allow (prosecutors) to plea down to the lesser sentence, nor would he have given (Smith) a jail term as opposed to incarceration," Kline said.

The first bill, SB 494 by Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, would eliminate a three-year statute of limitations on prosecuting lewd or lascivious offenses involving children younger than 16.

"The bill has a simple intention," Benacquisto said. "It is to provide a voice for children who are older than 11 who have been victimized in some form, to allow them to have the time to make that claim."

The second bill, SB 526 by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island and chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, would strengthen penalties against sex offenders. It would increase the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sexual offenses formerly classified as lewd and lascivious, ban prison gain-time for people who commit certain sexual offenses and require courts to order community supervision after release from prison for those convicted of certain offenses.

The third bill, Evers' SB 528, would increase the amount of personal information that registered sexual predators and offenders must provide. It would require them to report their vehicle information, Internet identifiers, palm prints, passports, professional licenses, immigration status and volunteer work at higher-education institutions.

Evers said his bill needed more work in collaboration with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on the question of tracking all vehicles in households with sexually violent predators. He also said prosecutors wanted some clarifications.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, expressed some doubts about what he called "a slippery slope" in pursuit of tougher sanctions against sex predators.

"I do have pause with the direction we're going by getting rid of gain time, " he said. "Rehabilitation --- that's not a word in our vocabulary anymore."

But in the end, Smith voted with the others.

On Tuesday, the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee will take up two more measures dealing with sexually violent predators.

One of the bills, SB 522 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, would make a series of changes such as adding a state attorney, a law enforcement officer and a victim’s advocate as advisory members to each multidisciplinary team that evaluates offenders considered for civil confinement.

The other Senate measure, SB 524 by committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, would require that offenders be defined as sexually violent predators and be subject to civil confinement after a finding by two or more members of a multidisciplinary team.

Also Tuesday, the House Healthy Families Subcommittee will take the first House vote on a measure dealing with sexually violent predators. And on Thursday, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will take up five proposed committee bills on the subject.