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Fla. Legislature Could Crack Down On Sexually Violent Predators

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- The Florida Legislature is poised to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, named for a Miami-Dade County boy who was raped and murdered in 1995, after the high-profile killing of a Jacksonville girl this summer and a newspaper series showing the state isn't doing enough to prevent sexually violent predators from striking again.

The Jimmy Ryce Act requires the state Department of Children and Families to evaluate sex offenders before their releases from prison, confining the most dangerous at the 720-bed Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia.

But according to an investigation published in August by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, DCF has been recommending fewer and fewer sex offenders for confinement, with the number falling from a high of 228 in 2000 --- two years after the law went into effect --- to a low of 19 in 2012.

At least 594 offenders reviewed and released under the law have been convicted of new sex offenses in Florida, the Sun Sentinel reported, and their crimes included molesting more than 460 children, raping 121 women and killing 14.

On Monday, DCF released a series of recommendations intended to lessen the number of sexually violent predators who fall through the cracks. Two Senate committees will meet jointly Tuesday to consider a legislative response.

"I think that the entire Legislature is on board," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, which will meet with the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine the state's Sexually Violent Predator Program.

"When I read the articles about these sexual predators, I get sick to my stomach and want to puke," Sobel said. "Talking to my colleagues, I know they feel the same way."

The Jimmy Ryce Act targets sexually violent predators who cannot stop themselves from further violence. Identifying them is a three-step process, requiring a DCF screening, a psychological evaluation and a trial. When committed to the Florida Civil Commitment Center, they must remain until a judge finds that they are no longer dangers to society.

The Sun Sentinel found that of the 594 offenders who were released under the Jimmy Ryce law and re-offended, 96 had been referred for a psychological review. Of these, 32 had been sent to court to be committed to the Florida Civil Commitment Center, 5 were confined there and all 5 were subsequently released.

The newspaper's investigation was already underway when Donald Smith, 56, was released from jail on a sex offense in May and, according to prosecutors, abducted, raped and strangled 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle of Jacksonville within three weeks.

Smith, a registered sex offender, had an extensive criminal history, including repeated attempts to kidnap young girls.

After DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo was tapped to lead the agency in mid-July, she ordered a review of the Florida Sexually Violent Predator program. Her recommendations, released Monday, included, "In addition to automatically sending cases that include kidnapping and murder convictions for evaluation, cases that include 'attempted' kidnapping and 'attempted' murder should automatically be sent for evaluation."

Had that recommendation been in place in May, Smith likely would not have been eligible for release, and Perrywinkle might still be alive.

Other recommendations include:

--- The policies and procedures for the evaluation process should be reviewed and evaluated by a team of expert stakeholders before being finalized and implemented.

--- Screeners will be trained to understand they are not solely responsible for screening out offenders who do not meet civil commitment criteria. They must refer cases for face-to-face evaluation when there is any doubt or ambiguity as to whether an offender will meet criteria.

--- When two evaluators believe an offender meets commitment criteria, the multidisciplinary team should be required to recommend a commitment petition be filed. Implementation of this recommendation will require rulemaking.

--- Contracts with forensic evaluators should be limited to one year with the option of renewal instead of the current three-year policy.

--- A system for evaluating the evaluators and providing them with feedback about the clarity of their reasoning should be implemented as a standard practice.

"The recommendations make sense," said Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence and one of those expected to appear at the joint Senate committee meeting Tuesday. "They're likely to move the (Sexually Violent Predator Program) in a good direction."

Jacobo also named attorney Greg Venz as interim head of the Sexually Violent Predator Program, describing him as an expert on the Jimmy Ryce Act. Last week Dan Montaldi stepped down as the program's director after the Sun Sentinel reported that he'd written an email to an association of mental health professionals, pointing out that more than 31,000 sex offenders had been screened since the law took effect 14 years ago and as a group they are "statistically unlikely to reoffend.''

Dritt noted that sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in the country, and that rapists are highly unlikely to be arrested or convicted.

"It's very hard for victim advocates to say the recidivism rate is the whole story," she said. "It can't be…We're not taking issue with the research, but it's not the whole story."

Dritt also recommended that a victim advocate be included on the multidisciplinary team that evaluates sex offenders.

Approximately 200 to 400 files are referred to the Sexually Violent Predator Program each month. Over 40,000 have been reviewed since the inception of the program.

"The News Service of Florida contributed to this report."

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