SEBRING - If the Florida Legislature has its way, sexual offenders released from prison won't go back on the streets as quickly.
"In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs met jointly to hear presentations from experts regarding sexual offenders and the civil-commitment process," said Sen. Denise Grimsley. Experts viewed current laws and suggested changes to enhance the ability to charge and convict any sexual offenders. Once their criminal sentence is complete, worst-case offenders can be civilly committed and treated.
"The key concept is that this is not additional incarceration for a punitive reason," said Sen. Cary Pigman, a member of the House Healthy Families Subcommittee. "Instead, this is a several-month-long and intensive behavioral modification effort to prevent sexually violent predators from victimizing again."
Time is one key, the 2012 Florida Prison Recidivism Study found: 16 percent committed new crimes within 12 months, another 11 percent within 24 months, and another 7 percent within 36 months.
The Florida House is taking a hard look at the state's civil-commitment process for sexual predators, with House committees working together on an overhaul. Any slack in the commitment process could be corrected in the 2104 legislative session.
"One of the things we are going to do is ratchet up some of the penalties on people who abuse children sexually, abuse seniors, abuse the developmentally disabled," said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. "We're also going to make sure that when people get out of jail, we don't just release them back into the wild and hope for the best."
The process took another step forward as the House took up recommendations still being developed by Gaetz's criminal-justice panel.
In 2012, Jill Levenson and Ryan Shields studied 500 randomly selected Florida sex offenders for the National Institute of Justice. Twenty-one percent were ?child molesters or predators, 79 percent were convicted for sexually related offenses, such as public exposure.
After five years, 5.2 percent had been re-arrested for a new sexual crime. After 10 years, the number more than doubled to 13.7 percent, committing 2,752 new offenses. Only 4.2 were new sex crimes, however.
On the other hand, the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that 594 offenders had been released statewide, only to be convicted of new offenses - more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
However, the Department of Justice classifies many crimes as sexual offenses, including public exposure.
Sexual predators molest children. "Recidivism is very much higher in this class of offenders," Sheriff Susan Benton said.
"The legislative package will seek to make a few changes to the Department of Children and Family's Multidisciplinary Team, which reviews evaluation reports and makes final determinations about commitment eligibility for each individual offender," Grimsley said. "In the legislation, the Senate will seek to include a voice for the state's attorney, law enforcement and victims on the MDT, and will require equal consideration of attempted sexual offenses when considering an offender's need for treatment.
DCF has already added convictions for attempted kidnapping or attempted murder with a sexual component as automatic grounds for referring people for evaluations.
"Additionally, on the criminal justice side, the Senate will pursue including a series of recommendations allowing judges to convict offenders to longer sentences on the front end and also allow for longer periods of supervision and probation after their prison sentence is complete," Grimsley said.
Legislative hearings began in September, after the June rape and murder of Cherish Perrywinkle, an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl, allegedly by a sexual predator who had been released weeks before. Legislators have signaled they will give law-enforcement officers more tools to monitor sexual predators. They may add state attorneys and corrections officials to the list of those who refer offenders for a civil-commitment evaluation.
Had that provision been in place, Cherish Perrywinkle might still be alive. Donald Smith, 56, was released from jail in May and, according to prosecutors, kidnapped, raped and strangled the girl three weeks later. A registered sex offender, Smith had made repeated failed attempts to kidnap young girls - even posing as a DCF worker in one instance. But those crimes did not qualify him for civil commitment. Now they would.
In August, the Sun Sentinel reported that commitments under the state's Jimmy Ryce Act had dried up. The act targets sexually violent predators who cannot stop themselves from further violence, and identifying them requires a DCF screening, a psychological evaluation and a trial. Once committed to the 720-bed Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, they must remain until a judge rules they are no longer dangers to society.
"There are some folks who commit some offenses who we should never let out of jail," Gaetz said. "If you are predisposed to violently rape children, or senior citizens, or the developmentally disabled, you simply should not be allowed to walk the streets with the rest of us."
Watch footage of the joint House and Senate committee meeting at http://thefloridachannel.org
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report