Florida lawmakers want to toughen the state’s sexual predator laws and they’ve said the reforms will be the centerpiece of this year’s legislative session.
A tragic case from last summer has lawmakers moving quickly to make changes.
Last June, eight-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was sexually assaulted and murdered after being kidnapped from a Jacksonville WalMart.
Police arrested registered sex offender James Donald Smith early the next morning.
The incident exposed what many in the law enforcement and victims’ right communities say are loopholes in Florida’s sexual offender laws. Several bills have been introduced in Tallahassee to toughen the state’s sexual offender and predator laws.
One change being considered is a modification to the Jimmy Ryce Act.
Passed in 1998 the law requires the state to evaluate sex offenders before they can be released from prison. Those deemed to still be a threat to the public are confined to the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia for treatment.
State Attorney Angela Corey said the current law works well but it would be stronger if the state committed more resources.
"The problem is because it takes doctors review and it takes reading multiple files from as long ago as 20 or 30 years," she said. "It's a very time consuming, costly process. So I believe the legislature wants to help us do is speed up that process."
Another proposed change to the Jimmy Ryce laws deals with the probationary period of those committed to the center.
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford who has lobbied the legislature on behalf of the Florida Sheriff’s Association said the probation time shouldn’t start until the offender is released.
"While he is committed to the Jimmy Ryce facility, his probationary time is running," he said. "So at the end of five years he gets out of treatment and goes back to a community but he goes back with no supervision. That's a problem."
That problem was a factor in the case of Donald Smith. Officers had been at Smith’s home the morning before the kidnapping on a routine address verification visit. But since Smith was not on probation the officers could not legally enter the home without his permission.
Rutherford said officers might have been able to determine Smith was a threat if they were able to go in.
Rutherford said the law needs to be changed so when a sex offender is released into the community, that person is still under state oversight.
"The law will create a split sentence where he will do his prison time, do any civil commitment time and then when he gets out of civil commitment, that is when his probationary time will start," he said. "So they will no longer be able to come back to a community without community supervision."
Another bill would expand which sexual offenders can be evaluated to determine if they need to be sent to the commitment center.
Currently, Florida only performs the evaluations when offenders leave the state prison system. Donald Smith pled down to a misdemeanor and was incarcerated in the county jail instead of state prison.
Rutherford said the law needs to change so offenders like Smith can be evaluated prior to release.
"He's already been labeled as a sexually violent predator even if he goes to jail for a misdemeanor," he said. "If the state attorney or the law enforcement agency believes he needs to be evaluated for a Jimmy Ryce commitment they can refer him for that evaluation"
Other changes being proposed would require all vehicles a sexual offender has access to be reported to the state. Another bill would change lewd and lascivious behavior and indecent exposure charges from being misdemeanors to felonies if involving a registered sexual predator.
You can follow Kevin Meerschaert on Twitter @KMeerschaertJax.