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Sexual predator reforms gain momentum as legislators pass a flurry of bills

Senate and House committees on Tuesday speedily passed additional measures to tackle the issue of sexually violent predators, considered a major priority for the upcoming session.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairman of the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the proposed bills would “plug in the holes in the program and protect our vulnerable children and protect others from sexually violent predators.”

She held up a photo of 8-year-old Cherish Perrrywinkle of Jacksonville, who was murdered by a newly released sex offender, before the panel began reviewing two bills.

Senate Bill 522, sponsored by Sen. Denise Grimsley, would add a prosecutor, victim’s advocate and law enforcement officer to the multidisciplinary team that evaluates offenders considered for civil confinement. It would also expand the scope of inmates who can be evaluated under the predator law.

“The bill addresses the weaknesses in the current Sexually Violent Predator Program” that allows some violent predators to avoid evaluation and civil commitment, said Grimsley, R-Sebring.

The bills include recommendations made by Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families after a September review of the Sexually Violent Predator Program.

The DCF program came under fire when the Sun Sentinel reported in August that nearly 600 released sex offenders attacked again.

“We have known for a long time not enough individuals were caught in the review net,” said well-known lobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren,  founded the group Lauren's Kids to help victims of childhood sexual abuse. Lauren Book was sexually abused as a child by her nanny.

The Senate also approved SB 524, sponsored by Sobel, D-Hollywood, which would limit contracts with evaluators to one year, with the option of renewal instead of the current three-year policy.

The bill would also require that sex offenders be defined as sexually violent predators and be subject to civil confinement after a finding by two or more members of a multidisciplinary team.

Kristin Kanner, the new head of the DCF Sexually Violent Predator Program, stressed it is important that at least one person recommending an offender be committed for civil commitment a conduct a face-to-face interview and not just rely on data.

Sen. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff, said he was most concerned about the offenders that get away.

“I know it’s kind of picky, but when we talk about children’s lives, it’s a time to be picky,” Dean said.

Children aren’t the only victims, Kanner said.

“A good 25 percent of the people at the (confinement) center are adult rapists,” she said. “We’re talking about adult women who are raped as well and victimized.”

Both bills passed by a vote by 9-0.

The House Healthy Families Committee also approved a sex predator measure on Tuesday.

The proposed committee bill HFS 14-01 allows a multidisciplinary team to consult with law enforcement agencies and victim’s advocate groups during he evaluation process and gives prosecutors more flexibility in offender cases when team members don't agree.

Seven bills related to sexual offenders are scheduled for Thursday’s House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

On Monday, three bills targeting sexual predators passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Senate Bill 494, sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, would would eliminate a three-year limitation on prosecuting sexual offenses iinvolving children younger than 16.

Senate Bill 526, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, strengthens penalties against sex offenders and would increase the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sexual offenses.

Bradley, chairman of the Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommitte, also banned prison gain-time for people who commit certain sexual offenses and require courts to order community supervision after release from prison for those convicted of certain offenses.

Senate Bill 528, sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, would require registered sexual predators and offenders to provide more personal information, including vehicle information, Internet identifies, passports and other information