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Bills aiming at sexual predators pass House, head for Scott's signature

The Florida House passed four bills Wednesday that subject violent sexual offenders to longer sentences and more scrutiny upon the completion of their sentences.

In an election year where not many controversial bills are expected to pass, a number of bills bolstering Florida’s sexual predator laws have sailed through the Legislature buffeted by strong bi-partisan winds.

“It’s a proud moment,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

The bills come after the South Florida Sun Sentinel last year ran an investigative series of the conduct of violent sexual offenders after they were released under the Jimmy Ryce law, which is intended to keep the most dangerous offenders separate from the public after their sentences have ended.

The newspaper found that 594 offenders who were released since 1999 were convicted of new sex crimes -- molesting more than 460 children, raping 121 women and killing 14.

On Wednesday, the House passed three Senate bills that passed that chamber on the first day of session, in addition to an amended version of a Senate bill that will be voted on later.

“This will make Florida the safest state in America to raise a family,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. “And the worst state for violent sexual predators.”

Gaetz took up the companion to his House bill,  SB 526, by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. It imposes a mandatory sentence of 50 years for those convicted of the rape or torture of children, seniors or disabled. A staff analysis said it would cost about $41 million by 2020.

Citing numbers from the Sun Sentinel story, Gaetz said the bill, which now heads to Gov. Rick Scott, “keeps the bad guys in prison for a heck of a lot longer.”

The other bills passed, all unanimously, were:

-- SB 522 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, which was taken up by the House sponsor, Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, that adds more notification requirements when an offender is in custody or released from the Florida Civil Commitment Center.

-- SB 524 by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that was taken up by the House sponsor, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, that requires colleges and universities to notify students about the presence of sexual predators on campuses.

-- SB 528 by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, that was taken up by Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral. The bill requires a registered sex offender to provide personal information, such as Internet usernames, tag numbers for all vehicles and passports to law enforcement. Eagle amended the bill Wednesday to include a requirement that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles monitor the records of any sexual predator or offender whose name was given to them the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That amendment must still be approved by the Senate.

Though these were feel-good bills that lawmakers said made them feel proud, Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach said there was more work to be done.

He mentioned a study by the Department of Children and Families that said more than 36,000 summer camps throughout Florida don't screen counselors, leaving them vulnerable to sexual predators. 

"I'm hoping we can support a bill that looks at that," Pafford said.