The state administrator in charge of identifying sex predators who are too dangerous for society resigned Thursday, a day after the Sun Sentinel raised questions about his views and record.
Under Dan Montaldi's leadership, the number of potential predators identified by the state dropped by more than half, the Sun Sentinel found. In writings obtained by the newspaper, Montaldi advocated a narrow definition of a predator and defended the rights of sex offenders — a philosophy that one lawmaker said made his "skin crawl.''
"Dan Montaldi no longer works for the department,'' said Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Children & Families.
Lambert said she could not elaborate. Montaldi, 59, did not respond to a request for comment.
As director of Florida's Sexually Violent Predator Program, Montaldi was responsible for administering a law that allows the state to keep predators locked up after their prison sentences end. Staff evaluate sex offenders before they're released and recommend those likely to reoffend for continued confinement at a Central Florida treatment center.
The sex predator program has been under scrutiny since June, when 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was abducted from a Jacksonville Walmart, raped and murdered. Her accused killer, a registered sex offender, had been evaluated twice under the law and let go.
Last month, a Sun Sentinel investigation found nearly 1,400 sex offenders were arrested again on sex charges after being reviewed under the law.
In response to the series, Montaldi wrote an email to an association of mental health professionals, pointing out that more than 31,000 sex offenders had been screened since the law took effect 14 years ago and as a group they are "statistically unlikely to reoffend.''
"The real ethical concern,'' he wrote, "is the dilemma of competing moral values in a free society.''
"Public safety is a very important value because, among other reasons, it is necessary in order for liberty to be enjoyed,'' said the Aug. 20 email, posted to a mailing list of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "However, the value of liberty in a free society must also extend even to society's most feared and despised members. ... The civil rights of even sex offenders is still an important moral value.''
Montaldi urged his peers to support those rights. "It is our obligation, I believe, to stand up for even unpopular values, especially at a time when their unpopularity is at an extreme,'' the email said.
Montaldi's comments riled Florida legislators who are working to strengthen the state's sex offender laws in response to the Sun Sentinel series.
"That makes my skin crawl,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. "You're juxtaposing the rights of monsters among us to the safety of the most vulnerable among us, and it's an absurd comparison.''
Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, said Montaldi's views are inconsistent with the state's mission of public safety.
"The man who was charged with helping oversee a process that kept violent predators off the streets, to have sympathies for those committing the most heinous crimes, I'm glad he's gone,'' she said. "He took it upon himself to inject his own philosophy, which did not match ours.''
Montaldi, a psychologist, joined the department in 2010 and became director in March 2012. He was paid $82,500 a year.
Previously, Montaldi was director of Arizona's sex predator treatment center. He wrote in a 2007 paper that laws allowing continued confinement of predators were not "illegitimate as such'' but should be narrowly applied.
"As a society we are rightly concerned about individuals who have served their sentences yet remain sexually dangerous,'' he wrote in the Sexual Offender Treatment journal. "But for good reason the Constitution greatly restricts state power to confine persons who have not committed (new) crimes, whatever their propensities (or our estimations thereof).''
In Florida, sex predator recommendations dropped under Montaldi. In the year before he became director, the program flagged 213 offenders as potential predators, 8 percent of the total screened. In the year after, that number dropped to 86, or 3 percent of the total, the Sun Sentinel found.
In his Aug. 20 email, Montaldi said predator recommendations declined for several reasons, including efforts to send stronger cases forward. "This decrease does not reflect a overarching policy decision to 'not evaluate as many,' or 'let's not recommend so many.'"
Lawmakers are working on legislation to close gaps that have allowed predators to slip through, and the department is finishing an internal review of the sex predator program that began after Cherish's murder.
Results are due Monday, when the department will also announce Montaldi's replacement, Lambert said.
Rep. Irv Slosberg said Montaldi's departure is a good beginning. "The way the sex offenders are falling through the cracks,'' said the Boca Raton Democrat, "we need a fresh start.''
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