By MARGIE MENZEL
TALLAHASSEE -- With the state under fire for failing to stop sexually violent predators from committing repeated attacks, outraged Florida lawmakers Tuesday held hearings to get the facts and develop legislative solutions.
The wide-ranging discussions took in plea deals, sentencing guidelines, risk assessment, state contracting, treatment evaluations and the monitoring of offenders after release.
“This will not be one bill,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican whose subcommittee held one of the hearings. “This will be many, many bills.”
The hearings stemmed from last month’s investigative series by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which found that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state’s Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl, with nearly 600 offenders released only to be convicted of new sex offenses --- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford, whose jurisdiction was rocked this summer by the murder of a Jacksonville girl, urged legislators to give law-enforcement officers more tools to monitor sexual predators.
Rutherford said his officers had spoken with Donald Smith --- charged with kidnapping, raping and strangling eight-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle --- on the very day of her murder.
“You can talk to him in the morning, but 10 hours later and 13 miles away, he’s killing an 8-year-old girl,? Rutherford said. “They could be talking to us at the front door while they have someone locked up in the bedroom.”
By the terms of the Jimmy Ryce Act --- named for a 9-year-old Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995 --- the Department of Children and Families evaluates sex offenders before their release from prison. Those considered most likely to attack again aren’t necessarily released after completing their prison sentences, but may be screened, evaluated and confined at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia until they aren’t considered dangers to the community.
In the Senate, where the Judiciary and Children, Families and Elder Affairs committees met jointly, Judge Frank Sheffield of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in North Florida pointed to the ineffectiveness of Florida’s civil commitment procedure.
“We either need to decide that (the) Jimmy Ryce (Act) is truly something we?re using to take sexual predators and hopefully give them a posture that if released, they won’t commit another crime,” Sheffield said. “Or we?ve just got to lock them up to make sure they don?t have the opportunity.
“Right now we’ve got a system that’s not working either way.”
In the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Kristin Kanner, an assistant state attorney in Broward County, said she had tried more than 40 cases involving sexual predators “and every single solitary jury asked me why they weren’t getting treatment in prison. The treatment program isn’t robust in Florida.”
Rutherford, who spoke to both committee meetings, said that when Jimmy Ryce offenders are released to their home counties, they should be identified as such. Currently, he said, no distinction is made between sexually violent predators and “just another sex offender.”
Rutherford said Smith, who was released from jail as a sex offender 21 days before Cherish Perrywinkle was murdered, had been busted for lewd and lascivious behavior --- a misdemeanor --- when in fact he had impersonated a DCF worker in an effort to abduct a girl.
“The real loophole is the lewd and lascivious,” he said.
Gaetz, who is pushing to close the loopholes by which sexual predators are released, said it made sense for a lewd and lascivious charge to trigger an evaluation for civil commitment.
“And then it doesn’t matter what the prosecutor pleads them to, because you’ve tagged them (for evaluation under the Jimmy Ryce law),” he said.
Sheffield told the joint Senate hearing that if he could make one change in the system, it would be to prepare sexual predators for life in the community in a gradual transition, such as a halfway house.
Robin Wilson, a board-certified clinical psychologist, told senators the vast majority of people who engage in sexual predation will eventually go back to the community and that punishment alone will not reduce bad behavior.
Lobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren spoke to the House committee, recommended using Sadowski affordable housing funds to house offenders far from the community.