The troubled state program charged with identifying rapists and child molesters too dangerous for society is getting a new boss: a Broward prosecutor who has devoted much of her career to locking up sex offenders.
The appointment Friday of Kristin Kanner to head Florida's Sexually Violent Predator Program signals a renewed focus on public safety and is the latest in the fallout from a Sun Sentinel investigative series in August.
The newspaper found Florida had failed to stop hundreds of sex offenders from harming again, despite a 1999 law that allows the state to keep predators confined even after their prison sentences end. Lawmakers are now working on a series of reforms to strengthen sex offender laws.
Kanner said in an interview that her top priority will be preventing dangerous sex offenders from slipping through and getting out.
"I think you have to look at more of them to be able to catch the ones that are flying under the radar,'' she said. "I'm afraid ... there are some people that perhaps should have been picked up that were not.''
Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, tapped Kanner for the job after seeing her testify at two legislative hearings on sex predators in September.
"It was very clear to me she had an understanding of the whole system,'' Jacobo told the Sun Sentinel on Friday. "She can bring that public safety perspective that I think was missing.''
Kanner, 47, joined the Broward State Attorney's Office in 1993 and has spent the past decade in the sex crimes division.
She is the first prosecutor to lead the 14-year-old sex predator program, which has traditionally been run by a psychologist involved in sex offender evaluations. The previous director, Dan Montaldi, resigned in September after the Sun Sentinel questioned his record and his views defending sex offenders' rights.
Under Montaldi, the state recommended confinement for fewer and fewer predators, giving Florida the lowest referral rate of 17 states with similar laws, the newspaper reported.
"It's important to return the program back to the intent of the statute ... to keep the most seriously predatory and violent sexual offenders confined,'' Kanner said. "It does seem that it lost its focus.''
Kanner will oversee a team of state psychologists who evaluate about 3,000 sex offender inmates each year to identify predators who warrant continued confinement in a treatment facility. Those cases are referred to prosecutors, who must convince judges or juries in civil trials that the offenders are likely to attack again if released.
As a prosecutor, Kanner handled more than 30 sex predator trials.
"I've had to learn the pitfalls and what the pros and cons of the program are,'' she said. "I'm thrilled to be able to fix some of the things that we've all complained about for years.''
Jacobo said she's directed Kanner to examine the program top to bottom. "I asked her to take a fresh look at how we do everything,'' she said.
Kanner said she wants to widen the state's net of potential predators, an idea her boss supports. "I'd like to see more referrals,'' Jacobo said.
Kanner said one of her first tasks will be to review the criteria the program uses to single out predators. The Sun Sentinel found that screeners limited their searches to only the most egregious offenders such as child molesters with multiple offenses and a pattern of "extensive physical violation.''
"I've prosecuted tons of pedophiles who touched kids only over their clothes. How is that any less predatory?'' Kanner said. "I think if you change your definition, you're going to pick up a lot of people.''
Kanner said she would take a close look at sex offenders still in custody who the program found were not predators to see if any of those decisions should be reversed. The department already began an internal review, reclassifying 16 cases on one day in June.
Another area of concern is what happens to predators once the program flags them. Of more than 1,500 the state has recommended for confinement, nearly half were freed by the courts.
"I would like to see if there is something we can do to shore that number up,'' Kanner said.
Married to a criminal defense lawyer, Kanner will remain in Broward. She starts her new job Nov. 4 at a salary of $98,000 a year.
"It is daunting,'' Kanner said. "There's so much at stake.''
firstname.lastname@example.org, 954-356-4510 or Twitter @SallyKestin