Five years after Jessica Lunsford's killing, legislators rethink sex offender laws

TALLAHASSEE — The brutal killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, which happened five years ago today, fueled the creation of a boogeyman in Florida politics: the sex offender.

The designation carries loaded significance in the legislative process, and efforts each year to restrict the freedoms of sex offenders win broad support. This year is no different, with proposed measures to require background checks on athletic coaches and forbid some sexual offenders from using the Internet.

But now — after time, a trial and the killer's death have dissolved the zeal that spurred the Jessica Lunsford Act in 2005 — a number of lawmakers are rethinking how the state monitors sex offenders and whether current laws are really making children safer.

"The emotion and publicity and political science that comes into play after a horrific situation tends to create an overreaction," said Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, a prosecutor.

The public knew Jessica as a Citrus County third-grader with a cute smile and a pink hat. Convicted sex offender John Couey, who unbeknownst to local authorities lived across the street, confessed to kidnapping, raping and burying her alive in a shallow grave about 100 yards from her home.

The law named in her honor ordered more electronic monitoring and registration of sex offenders, tougher prison sentences and background checks for people who work at schools. The effort spread nationwide to more than 30 states with the help of her father, Mark Lunsford, a truck driver-turned-activist.

The attention also propelled city and county officials in Florida to implement tougher barriers prohibiting sex offenders from living or working near schools, playgrounds, bus stops and churches.

Combined with the Jimmy Ryce Act in 1998, which permitted the civil commitment of sexual predators for life, the efforts made Florida among the most restrictive states in the nation.

But recent studies and state statistics show that the fear that propelled the laws doesn't match reality.

"Across the country, studies are not showing that changes in sex crime rates can be attributed to those policies," said Dr. Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University who studies sex offenders. "Sex crimes against children are on the downslide — but since the 1990s."

• • •

The number of people on Florida's sex offender registry tops 53,500, an increase of nearly 50 percent in five years. Nationwide, the tally of registered sexual offenders exceeds 700,000.

Even more telling, Florida now spends an additional $36 million a year on sex offender programs. But the number of inmates convicted of sex crimes has held steady in the five years since the Jessica Lunsford Act, according to Department of Corrections statistics.

The laws also have created unintended consequences. The restrictions on where sex offenders can reside made hundreds homeless and prompted dozens in Miami to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. And the requirements to register those convicted of lewd crimes put the sex offender label on people authorities don't deem a threat.

"There is no empirical support that restrictions on where sex offenders live prevents sexual abuse or reoffending," said Levenson, a clinical social worker. "Not every person who commits a sex crime is a predatory pedophile."

This is the message Jennifer Dritt, a leading victims advocate at the state Capitol, preaches. As executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, Dritt supported tougher restrictions on sex offenders. But she said the lesson from the Jessica Lunsford case was misunderstood. Most sexual offenders are not strangers across the street. The overwhelming majority are those with familial authority.

"In a positive vein, (Jessica's case) really raised awareness of sexual offender management issues," Dritt said. "But I think it also sponsored a lot of knee-jerk reactions."

• • •

Some lawmakers are starting to agree.

State Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, is sponsoring legislation to revamp Florida's sex offender laws by implementing a "circle of safety" to protect children instead of strong residency restrictions on sexual offenders. The main provision of the bill (HB119) would prohibit sexual offenders from loitering within 300 feet of locations where children are present.

"Sometimes we focus on where those people live," Glorioso said. "Where they are sleeping last night really isn't the issue. It's what they are doing when they are awake."

He said he wants to protect children but readily acknowledges the problems in the existing laws. "These people, whether we like it or not, still have constitutional rights," he said. "I don't want to infringe upon their rights, but I don't want to jeopardize my kids either."

Already, Glorioso's bill is falling prey to the politics that put current provisions in place.

As originally drafted, the legislation would have pre-empted local residency restrictions on sex offenders, forbidding counties and cities from making barriers tougher than the 1,000-foot standard in state law.

Glorioso said that even though research shows the restrictions don't help, he plans to strike that part of his bill, blaming political opposition.

It's tough for lawmakers to walk the fine line.

"I think after a period of time you have to determine whether it's working the way you designed it to work," said Ron Book, a prominent lobbyist whose daughter was a victim of sexual abuse. But, he added, "nobody wants to read a piece of mail in a campaign that they have somehow lessened child safety laws."

Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, embodies the difficulty of legislation so closely tied to emotional crimes. His wife was abused as a child, and he is pushing a measure to limit sex offenders' access to the Internet if they used a computer to commit a sex crime.

"I don't want there to be a boogeyman, but for too long we refused to accept the number of children … who have been victims of sexual abuse," said Fetterman, a lawyer.

But he also thinks the existing laws need a tweak to make them more effective. "I think the Legislature passes all kinds of laws that haven't been well thought out because of political reasons," he said.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Five years after Jessica Lunsford's killing, legislators rethink sex offender laws 02/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 11:33am]

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