Florida Legislature to Evaluate Sexual Predator Laws

September 24, 2013

The Florida legislature is re-thinking the way violent sexual predators should be handled upon their release from prison. The review of the current laws and standards regarding violent sexual predators will occur partly as a result of the recent arrest of Donald Smith out of Jacksonville, Florida. Within three weeks of his release from jail, he is alleged to have abducted, sexually assaulted and strangled an 8 year-old girl. He is awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping, sexual battery on a minor, and murder. Prior to this incident, the Sun Sentinel published a story in August expressing their concern with the significant decrease in sexual offenders that were being confined pursuant to civil commitment under the Jimmy Ryce Act. The Jimmy Ryce Act was created by the Florida legislature in 1995 as a result of the rape and murder of a Miami-Dade County boy by a previously convicted sexual offender.

The Jimmy Ryce Act requires that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) evaluate sexual offenders and sexual predators prior to being released from prison. The Jimmy Ryce Act was created to target sexual offenders and sexual predators who were likely to re-offend and incarcerate them until they received treatment and were no longer a danger to the community. Identifying individuals to be committed pursuant to the act is a three-step process. DCF is first required to screen all defendants that have been convicted of certain sex crimes prior to their release from jail or prison. The identified individuals are given a psychological examination to determine the likelihood of re-offending. If DCF determines that the individual will likely commit and another sexual offense, civil commitment will be sought. The individual that may be detained is entitled to a trial before a circuit court judge before involuntary commitment can be ordered. The respondent is entitlted to be represented by a criminal defense lawyer at the trial. If civil commitment is ordered, the individual will remain in custody until a judge determines there is no longer a danger to society.

The article in the Sun Sentinel reported that 594 sexual offenders and predators that had previously confined under the Jimmy Ryce Act have re-offended. As a result of the report and the recent incident in Jacksonville, DCF and the Florida Legislature is seeking to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act. Many are questioning why the 720 bed facility located in Arcadia Florida is not being used more efficiently and why DCF has been recommending fewer and fewer civil commitments ever year. In 2008, DCF recommended 208 commitments which was reduced to 19 in 2012. One has to wonder if the current law is ineffective or do the budget cuts have something to do with the perceived problem. To fix the problem, DCF forwarded a series of recommendations to the legislature in an effort to solve it. The legislature will review the recommendations and provide a response to the request.

Currently, DCF reviews cases that include kidnapping and murder charges, DCF has suggested that attempted kidnapping and attempted murder cases should also be evaluated. DCF also suggested that the evaluation polices and procedures be reviewed by independent experts to determine if the current process is sufficient or should be changed. DCF is also requesting more stringent standards when it comes to screening and that forensic evaluators have 1 year contracts as opposed to 3 year contracts. DCF recently appointed a new head of the Sexually Violent Offender Program to assist in correcting the current problems. There is no doubt that the program is overworked as 200 to 400 files are sent to the program every month for evaluation.

Florida Legislature Could Crack Down on Sexually Violent Predators, CBS Miami.com, September 24, 2013.