- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Florida Legislature appears ready to pass a package of bills that will lock up child rapists longer and close loopholes that allow the most dangerous sexual predators to avoid civil commitment after they’re punished for their crimes.

The Florida House on Tuesday gave tentative approval to four bills and could soon send them to Gov. Rick Scott.

“Florida will be the safest state in America to raise a family and the worst state in America for violent sexual predators,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

The wide-ranging legislative package would require released sexual offenders list all cars registered to their address and would double the mandatory minimum sentence for child rapists and sexually dangerous offenders to 50 years in prison. It would also strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment. Under civil commitment, sexual predators may continue to be confined even after they finish their prison terms.

The law named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County, is intended to keep the most violent sexual predators locked up. But it has become clear that since it took effect in 1999 there are loopholes.

Gaetz gave his fellow legislators a grim reminder of the gaps in the existing law. He said since it was enacted, hundreds of released sex offenders have molested nearly 500 children, raped more than 100 women and killed 14 people.

Lawmakers in both chambers have said the inspiration for strengthening the laws came from the death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle last June and a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation on sexual predators who were released only to commit more crimes.

Cherish was raped and strangled after she was abducted from a Jacksonville Wal-Mart. Her body was found the next day. A repeat sexual offender, Donald Smith, is charged with murdering her. Smith had been reviewed twice before for civil commitment and allowed to remain free. He was released from jail the month before the killing but wasn’t eligible for another review.

Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal in a case where he made obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonated a Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator to try to get access to her.

Under the bills about to pass offenders can be referred for a civil commitment review whether they are serving jail or prison sentences.

Sexual predators and offenders would also have to provide law enforcement agencies with any Internet usernames they use, as well as information about their passports, immigration status, professional licenses and all vehicles registered at their address, including those of friends and relatives, when they register as sex offenders.

The statute of limitations would be eliminated for molesting children younger than 16. Right now, molesters can’t be prosecuted if the crimes are reported more than three years later.

The 50-year mandatory sentence would also apply to people who rape the developmentally disabled and the elderly. The most sexually dangerous offenders would also have to serve their entire sentences and not be allowed a shorter sentence for good behavior. Probation for offenders who are civilly committed would not begin until they are released from commitment. Now, probation time begins when they are released from prison and sometimes expires while they are in commitment.


Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this story.

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