- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Sexual predators will be locked up longer and more could be committed for psychiatric review once they finish their criminal sentences under a package of bills the Florida House passed Thursday.

Three of the bills now go to Gov. Rick Scott and a fourth returns to the Senate with minor changes. The Senate passed the measures last week on the first day of the legislative session.

“We are making the state a much safer place. We are making our children safer from these sexually violent predators,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie.

The wide-ranging legislative package attempts to close loopholes in the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the psychiatric review, or civil commitment, of sexually violent offenders even after they finish their prison sentences. A team under the supervision of the Department of Children and families assesses sexual offenders to determine if they are still dangerous. One of the bills will require the DCF team to consult with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and victim advocates during the review process.

One of the bills also creates a 50-year mandatory minimum sentence for people who rape children under 12, senior citizens and the developmentally disabled. Offenders would not be eligible for a reduced sentence for good behavior. Now, the mandatory minimum sentence for the worst sexual offenders is 25 years.

“Nobody has ever raped a child while sitting in a state prison,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar.

All of the bills passed unanimously.

Among other provisions, sexual offenders will have to list all cars registered to their address even if owned by roommates or relatives. One of the bills also expands the information required when people register with the state as sexual offenders, including details on passports, immigration status, professional licenses and any online IDs.

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. 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, offenders can be referred for a civil commitment review whether they are serving jail or prison sentences.

“We changed the game for how sexual predators will live in the state of Florida forever,” said Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book, who now advocates for laws that punish sexual offenders and helps victims, praised lawmakers for making the bills a priority.

With Governor Rick Scott’s signature, “these bills will be the powerful tools that protect powerless people from the monsters who would prey upon them,” Book said in a prepared statement. “I am deeply grateful that this issue has become a priority of our state leaders. Their commitment today to bring about change will allow a new generation of Floridians to be safer than ever before from sexual predators.”


Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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