It's been 14 years since the Jimmy Ryce law took effect requiring the state to examine convicted sexual offenders and decide whether they should be held in a treatment center after finishing their prison sentences. It hasn't proven to be a foolproof reform. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's series "Sex Predators Unleashed" documents horrific cases in which rapists and child molesters were released from prison only to assault new victims — sometimes on the very day they were freed. The question at the center of the newspaper's investigation asks: Why were these men were allowed to leave confinement?
State lawmakers are calling for new mandatory minimum sentences, an expansion of civil commitment after criminal sentences are served, and other knee-jerk measures. But they aren't the answer, just as the Jimmy Ryce law wasn't the answer 14 years ago. There are other, less expensive approaches to improving public safety, including better monitoring of released sex offenders and enhanced treatment in prison and after release.
Since 1999, the Jimmy Ryce law has allowed the state to subject sexual predators to civil commitment after they have served their criminal sentence. The law was named after a 9-year-old boy who was raped and murdered in South Florida. Civil commitment seems to violate due process by confining people in anticipation of what they might do in the future. But the courts have found it constitutional, and Florida appears to be stuck with it.
Of the 3,000 or so sex offenders in Florida who are evaluated each year for civil confinement after serving their sentences, only a handful are considered dangerous enough to qualify. The Sun-Sentinel's investigation suggests that too many dangerous sexual predators are slipping through the cracks, but the system is not as broken as it first appears.
The newspaper's investigation found 594 instances over 14 years where a sex offender was arrested for another sex crime after release. That added up to more than 460 children molested, 121 women sexually assaulted and 14 people killed. Those are terrible crimes, but the recidivism rate for sexual offenders who were reviewed and let go was less than 10 percent. Florida's overall recidivism rate is 30.5 percent over three years, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. This indicates that a large percentage of sex offenders are not appropriate candidates for civil commitment.
Determining who is dangerous and mentally troubled enough to enter Florida's 720-bed sex offender treatment facility is not an exact science. But if standards for civil commitment are loosened, it will lead to costly and unnecessary confinements. The state has spent more than $450 million on this population since the law took effect, and there is no data on how effective the treatment has been.
What makes more sense is for Florida to do a better job tracking sex offenders after they are released. Since 2000, state audits have made that recommendation but no agency has been assigned to do it. Treatment should start in prison and help should continue after release. If the Legislature can find money for more confinement beds, it should be able to fund cost-effective, less restrictive alternatives. These are awful crimes that deserve more attention, but longer prison sentences that limit judicial discretion and more civil commitments to a "treatment facility" are not the answer.