Florida lawmakes hope to tighten loopholes in sex offender laws
Florida lawmakers have agreed to make reforming sex offense laws a priority this legislative session, a move spearheaded in part by a Cape Coral representative.
Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, jumped on board after a Sun Sentinel investigation suggested the state mishandled hundreds of sex offense cases and allowed convicted offenders to find new victims.
"I'm passionate about it," Eagle said, "and I'm glad others are taking notice."
House and Senate panels passed a handful of correlating bills last week that would keep sex offenders behind bars longer, require them to provide more personal information after they are released, notify victims when they are released, and eliminate a loophole that could allow sex offenders to leave prison without serving a period of community supervision. The legislative session begins March 4.
HB 7021, one of two bills sponsored by Eagle, would make it easier to detain sex offenders under Florida's Jimmy Ryce law. The 1999 law requires the state to evaluate violent sex offenders to determine if they are still a threat to society after completing their prison terms. If they are deemed a threat, the offenders can be confined indefinitely in a treatment program.
Almost 600 offenders evaluated since 1999 were released and later convicted of another sex crime, according to the Sun Sentinel investigation published last year.
"We should at least be able to do our best to keep those kind of people behind bars and under watch," Eagle said.
Now the decision to commit a sex offender under Jimmy Ryce hinges on a unanimous vote by a Department of Children and Families panel, which can range from two to five people. If Eagle's bill passes, one vote in favor would be enough to commit an offender. And if every member of the DCF panel votes no, the state attorney's office could override the panel and commit the offender.
But Roger Gunder, a Fort Myers sexologist who has worked with sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse, thinks it should be harder, not easier, to imprison someone indefinitely.
"I have never been in favor of locking people up for what you think they might do," he said, "which is exactly what the Jimmy Ryce act does."
Eagle's second sex offender bill, HB 7025, would require sex offenders to disclose more personal information when they are released from prison. The bill updates the current statute, requiring sex offenders to register information including their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
HB 7027 would impose 50-year minimum mandatory sentences for dangerous sexual offenders, eliminate the statute of limitations for sex offenses committed on victims younger than 16, and authorize arrests without warrants in cases of unlawful exposure of sexual organs.
An extended prison sentence would be appropriate for a small percentage of the state's most violence sex offenders, Gunder said. But most sex offenders need more treatment, not more time in prison.
Gunder said media coverage, such as the Sun Sentinel report, gives the public a distorted view of the recidivism rates of sex offenders. Research shows sex offenders re-offend less often than other types of criminals, he said.
House and Senate leaders, in a show of bipartisanship, have agreed to move forward with the proposed sex offender bills. Eagle is in favor of all of them. He said:
"I've already supported them with my votes."
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