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Florida Senate passes tougher sexual predator bills

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Senate passed a package of bills Tuesday that will lock up child rapists longer, force sexual offenders to disclose more information and close loopholes that allow the most dangerous predators to avoid civil commitment after they're punished for their crimes.

All four bills were approved unanimously and without debate on the first day of the 60-day legislative session. The Senate wanted to send a clear message that protecting people from sexual predators was its top priority. That message will be repeated in the House next week when it is expected to send the bills to Gov. Rick Scott at the first opportunity.

The mother of Somer Thompson, a 7-year-old Jacksonville-area girl who was kidnapped, raped and killed and her body dumped in a trash bin, was in tears in the Senate gallery as each of the bills passed.

The wide-ranging package would make released sexual offenders list all cars registered to their address and double the mandatory minimum sentence for child rapists and sexually dangerous offenders to 50 years in prison. They will also 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.

Lawmakers in both chambers have said inspiration for strengthening the laws came from the death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle last June and a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation on sexual predators who were released only to commit more crimes.

Cherish was abducted from a Jacksonville Wal-Mart, was raped and strangled. Her body was found the next day.

A repeat sexual offender, Donald Smith, is charged with murdering her.

Smith had been reviewed twice before for civil commitment and allowed to remain free. He was released from jail the month before the killing but wasn't eligible for another review.

Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal in a case where he made obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonated a Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator to try to get access to her.

But when the bills become law, offenders can be referred for a civil commitment review whether they are serving jail or prison sentences.

Written by Associated Press

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