A violent sex crime devastated Don Ryce's family. A kidnapper raped and murdered his young son, and the resulting pain and grief may have hastened the deaths of his wife and daughter.
Ryce found some comfort in the Florida law, passed in his son's memory, that is supposed to safeguard other families from sex predators. But a Sun Sentinel investigation last month found hundreds of rapists and child molesters reviewed and released under the Jimmy Ryce law went on to attack more women and children.
"It made me sick," Don Ryce said in an interview at his Vero Beach home last week. "That was the very thing the law was supposed to try to protect us from."
Ryce and his wife, Claudine, lobbied for the law after Jimmy's 1995 disappearance in south Miami-Dade County. Farmhand Juan Carlos Chavez abducted the fifth-grader after his school bus dropped him off and forced the boy into his trailer. Chavez sexually assaulted Jimmy and shot him when he tried to escape.
For three months, the Ryces searched for their son before a tip led police to Chavez and the discovery of Jimmy's dismembered remains on a nearby farm.
"It's a devastating thing that you just can't possibly imagine," said a tearful Don Ryce. "Just the thought that your child had to go through that still gets me upset."
The Ryces, both lawyers, used the tragedy to advocate for change. "My wife and I always felt strongly we didn't want Jimmy to be remembered just as another victim, or worse yet, forgotten entirely," Don Ryce said.
The legal measure they chose to endorse, called civil commitment, allows the state to confine sex offenders after their prison sentences end if they're considered too dangerous for society. Predators are court-ordered to a treatment center in Central Florida until a judge allows their release.
The Jimmy Ryce law was designed to capture the worst of the worst, Don Ryce said, sex offenders "who just are never going to quit."
But for every offender Florida has committed since the law took effect in 1999, the Sun Sentinel found, two others have been released and arrested again on sex charges.
"It's quite obvious that a lot of the worst of the worst are getting out," Ryce said. "That's not what was intended."
At least 594 sex offenders have been convicted of new sex crimes after being reviewed under the law and let go, the newspaper found. Nearly half attacked within a year of their release.
Reginald Warren Sr. began molesting an 8-year-old girl the very day he got out of prison.
Child molester Jesse Graves lasted five months before befriending and sexually assaulting a 10-year-old. The state let Graves go despite a note in his screening file that he had "admitted to a history of thoughts to pursue little girls as long as he could remember."
The short time it took many of the offenders to strike again "tells you these people are absolutely a clear and present danger," Ryce said. "I frankly don't understand how they could have been let out, what thought process could have possibly led people to let them back out."
An original sponsor of the legislation also said the law named after the South Florida youngster who loved baseball and reading hasn't worked as intended.
The Sun Sentinel investigation "identified a number of areas where the legislation that was adopted has not been administered properly," said Ron Klein, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who sponsored the bill in the Florida Senate. "It shouldn't have taken this long to figure out what was working and what wasn't."
The state Department of Children and Families is responsible for evaluating sex offenders before their release and deciding which ones are predators who should be confined at the treatment center.
"I think they've not effectively administered the program in a way to protect the public," Klein said. "That's a serious problem."
The department is reviewing its sex offender evaluations and working with legislative leaders "to improve the laws related to sexually violent predators and keep Floridians safe from this dangerous population,'' said spokesman Whitney Ray.
The failures the Sun Sentinel uncovered are too numerous to ignore, Ryce said.
"What price have we paid? Something needs to be done," he said. "I want Jimmy's law to work the way it was supposed to work in the beginning."
In response to the Sun Sentinel series, state Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat, last week called for a hearing on the law's "unacceptable and disappointing results." And other lawmakers are working on legislation that would identify and confine more predators and lengthen sentences to keep offenders locked up longer.
Ryce said he supports tougher punishment.
"You have to be careful to pick the right crimes," he said, "but with the worst of them, there's nothing wrong in my opinion with making the first sentence severe and if they repeat, making it increasingly severe."
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