Florida legislators from both parties are coming to the Capitol next week in agreement that some of the first bills they'll pass could have saved the life of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl.
The death of Cherish Perrywinkle, who was abducted at a Wal-Mart, combined with a newspaper investigation into the state's sexual predator civil commitment program have created a rarely seen unity in a process that's more often known for division and political differences.
And a package of bills that deal with sexual offender laws is ready for a vote as soon as the Senate begins its annual 60-day session. The House is expected to approve them the following week.
"If the laws we are proposing today would have been the laws a year or two years ago, Cherish Perrywinkle would be alive," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chairman.
The main goal of the proposed laws will be to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment of sexual predators once they finish their prison terms. The law named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County is designed to keep the most violent sexual predators locked up. But it's become clear since it took effect in 1999 that there are loopholes.
A review team evaluates predators on a psychological basis to determine if they are a still a threat after their sentences. If they believe so, a trial is held and if a jury agrees, the predator is committed to what looks like a prison, but is technically a psychiatric treatment center. People who are committed are reevaluated and can be released if determined that they are no longer a risk — though officials who run the treatment center have said they are never truly "cured."
Cherish and her mother were shopping when a man befriended them and offered to buy them clothing and food, investigators say. Smith said he was taking Cherish to a McDonald's in the Wal-Mart but he instead led her out of the store. Her body was found the next day. She had been strangled. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, is charged with her murder. Smith was released from jail the month before the death after being caught making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl, making verbal threats and impersonating Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator.
Smith has a long history of sex offenses dating to a 1993 conviction for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene material. He had already been reviewed for civil commitment two times previously, but he wasn't eligible for another review after being released just before the Perrywinkle killing. Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal.
"This tragic, horrific case really shined a light on some of those really big gaping holes in the law that couldn't be ignored," said Lauren Book, a sexual abuse survivor who now advocates for tougher laws.
For more than a decade, Book and her father, lobbyist Ron Book, have sought bills to prevent abuse, help victims and punish offenders each legislative session. Book said she's never seen such a thoughtful, cooperative approach by lawmakers to tighten sexual offense laws.
"To have these bills the first day of the legislative session — it's unheard of. I'm at a loss for words," she said.
One of the bills would allow a civil commitment review for any sex offender, regardless of whether they're serving misdemeanors or felonies. If it had been law already, the Duval County state attorney could have recommended Smith for civil commitment. The measures being considered also call for a victim's advocate, police officers and prosecutors to provide information to the Department of Children and Families team that conducts psychological evaluations to determine if offenders should be committed.
If another bill passes, the worst sexual offenders might not live long enough to be considered for civil commitment. Proposed legislation would create a mandatory 50-year sentence and up to life in prison for people who rape children or who are considered dangerous sexual offenders — double the current mandatory penalty.
Detective Ruth Chapman of the Duval County Sheriff's Office spends her days keeping track of sexual offenders and predators, making sure they live and work where they say they do. She welcomes expanding the civil commitment review process, noting a state attorney will have access to detectives' notes and recommendations and a more well-rounded knowledge of an offender.
"Detectives and police officers work around people who commit sex offenses routinely, so they're able to identify patterns or potential problems," Chapman said. "A state attorney being armed with that knowledge, it's going to be beneficial in being able to single out who's more in need of being civilly committed and not having anybody slip through the cracks."
While recently driving through Jacksonville to verify offenders and predators, Chapman talked about some of the changes in the law she'd like to better monitor them. They now have to provide information about vehicles they own, but Chapman noted Smith was driving his mother's van when Cherish was abducted. She'd like information on all vehicles offenders have access to.
She also would like a law that requires predators to cooperate with officers assigned to verify addresses by at least opening the door and answering questions. She said one predator she tracks always refuses to open the door and drunkenly shouts curses at her through the window. She's done her job of verifying he lives there, but it doesn't allow her to ask for other information.
Lawmakers are taking steps on some of the issues she's concerned with. Bills would require registered sex offenders to list all vehicles registered where they live, including those of roommates and relatives. Offenders would also have to include more information when they register with the state, including any Internet identifiers they use, any professional licenses they hold and any place where they work as a volunteer.
Much of the momentum for new legislation came after a South Florida Sun Sentinel series took a look at offenders who were reviewed for civil commitment but ended up being set free at some stage in the process. They found 594 offenders who committed new crimes, some the day they were released, including 14 killings. The released prisoners also were later caught molesting 460 children and raping 121 women, the newspaper found.
"It was a groundbreaking, eye-opening, somewhat depressing expose on the lack of controls the state has in regards to the sexual predator laws and the loopholes that have been created," said House Speaker Will Weatherford. "The good news is, that piece was written over the summer, so there's been a tremendous amount of time to be very thoughtful."