State legislators promise to overhaul sex offender laws in response to a Sun Sentinel investigation last week that found Florida has failed to stop hundreds of rapists and child molesters from attacking again.
In the Florida Senate and House, leading lawmakers now are working on legislation to toughen sentences for sex crimes and keep more of the most dangerous offenders confined after their prison terms end.
Senate President Don Gaetz vowed action the first week of the legislative session that begins in March.
"As a state, we need to come down very hard on the side of strengthening the laws and not letting bad people who have done these horrible things out onto the street," Gaetz told the Sun Sentinel in an interview. "After reading your series, this issue moves to the top of my priorities."
Changes under consideration include:
• Imposing mandatory minimum sentences for more sex crimes.
• Confining more predators after their release from prison.
• Converting unused prison beds to expand the capacity of the state's sex predator treatment center.
"In the entire Legislature, everybody will be on board to do something," said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat. "It's just a clear-cut, horrible shame on our society, what's happening to innocent people."
The Sun Sentinel's "Sex Predators Unleashed" series documented shocking failures in a law that allows Florida to keep sex offenders locked up after they finish their prison sentences. Named in memory of a South Florida boy who was raped and murdered, the Jimmy Ryce law requires the state to evaluate convicted sex criminals before their release and to recommend predators — those with a mental disorder that makes them likely to reoffend — for lockup at a treatment center in Central Florida.
In the 14 years since the law took effect, the Sun Sentinel found, at least 594 offenders reviewed and let go were later convicted of a new sex crime in Florida. Forty percent attacked within a year of their release — some the very same day. These offenders molested more than 460 children, raped 121 women and murdered 14.
"What I think your series has uncovered, and it's been a great service to the people of Florida, is the holes in the Jimmy Ryce Act are gaping," said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Senate president's son and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. "We've got to plug those gaps, and I don't think we should stop there."
The Fort Walton Beach Republican is considering tougher punishment for sex crimes.
Only two sex crimes now come with mandatory minimum sentences. Molesting a child under 12 calls for 25 years, and raping a child under 12 requires life in prison. Punishment for other sex offenses varies depending on factors including the convict's record.
"I'm supportive of extremely high mandatory minimum" sentences for sex crimes, Rep. Gaetz said.
Lawmakers also are considering expanding capacity of the treatment center for sex predators, the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, by using empty prison beds.
"If we need to spend money to have more civil commitment facilities so that sex predators are behind bars instead of on our streets, then we will do it," Rep. Gaetz said. "Our focus on sexual predators is going to be supercharged."
Lawmakers across the state said they were shocked by the newspaper's findings that hundreds of sex offenders released under the Ryce law had gone on to hurt more woman and children, many horrifically. Victims of the repeat offenders include a college student tortured to near-death, a great-grandmother raped and shot in her own bed, and an elderly woman who was sexually assaulted and had her throat slit by a rapist released just three months earlier.
"That's about as heinous as it gets because it's a crime that is not only very damaging physically and life-threatening, it's a crime that is humiliating and degrading and just destroys people emotionally," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "That kind of victimization has to be stopped. Our first responsibility is public safety."
The Ocala Republican said some offenders with sexual disorders can't be cured.
"There's no doubt in my mind that while we don't want to cast the net so far that we are condemning people to confinement forever that are not a threat, we certainly want to do everything we can to avoid any predator from being let loose on society," Baxley said.
Sen. Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the Sun Sentinel series revealed failures not only in the Jimmy Ryce law but in the entire criminal justice system.
"The mission of this state should be crystal clear — to make Florida the safest possible place for children and the worst place for child molesters," the Senate president said. "That most assuredly will deal with sentencing. I'm prepared to spend additional money to keep truly horrible people behind bars."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun