Despite a controversial system that can indefinitely hold convicted sexual offenders in civil confinement after their criminal sentences are completed, Florida has a serious problem with repeat offenders. Hundreds of violent sexual offenders have committed new sexual crimes after being released from prison, and the Florida Legislature is determined to crack down. The Senate has approved a package of legislation that would create some of the toughest standards in the nation for the release of sexual offenders, but the House should re-examine the details.
The Jimmy Ryce Act went into effect in 1999, requiring that sex offenders released from state prison be considered for involuntary civil confinement. The goal is to provide treatment for convicted rapists and child molesters who are deemed mentally unstable and considered highly likely to commit new crimes. But there are holes in the process. An investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel revealed that nearly 600 violent sexual offenders who had been released from prison committed violent sexual crimes again, some on the very same day they got out.
The Legislature is quickly responding with a series of bills, and the Senate unanimously approved each one last week. One bill, SB 528, would increase the amount of information for registries that sex offenders released from prison must provide, including Internet screen names, email addresses, palm prints and vehicle registration information for themselves and people who live with them. Another bill would require longer prison terms for offenders who commit crimes against children and would prevent taking time off sentences for good behavior. A third bill recommends offenders for civil commitment if at least two or more members of a multidisciplinary team determine an individual is a sexually violent predator.
Floridians deserve every protection against the state's most sexually deviant minds, and the proposed bills take steps to strengthen a broken system. But the bills are not perfect. In a fourth bill, the state attorney can recommend civil commitment for any county inmate who is a registered sex offender and is serving time for any crime. That provision is awfully broad and could put jail inmates at risk of being civilly committed as a sex offender well after they have served their criminal sentences and even though they are in jail for a minor misdemeanor that has nothing to do with sexual offenses. It will be up to lawyers, judges and the medical professionals who evaluate inmates to ensure the process does not wrongly entrap people who have served their time and show no inclination to commit new sex crimes.
It is entirely appropriate for the Legislature to respond to news that hundreds of convicted sex offenders committed new sex crimes after they were released. This bipartisan legislative package is a generally solid response, but lawmakers cannot let their understandable outrage over unspeakable crimes trump constitutional concerns. Statistics show that the majority of sexual offenses against children are committed by people the victim knows, and the majority of all sex offenses are committed by first-time offenders. As the Legislature toughens the laws regarding sex offenders, it should let facts rather than emotion drive the discussion.