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Senate Makes Quick Work of Protections Against Sex Offenders

March 3, 2014 - 6:00pm

The Florida Senate made safeguarding Florida's most vulnerable its first order of business on opening day, voting unanimously to pass four major sexual predator bills.

The bicameral, bipartisan effort to strengthen protections against sexual offenders is a component of the joint 5-point Work Plan Florida 2014 agenda announced in January by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The Senate stood together today to declare Florida as scorched earth for sex offenders, Gaetz said. Our goal is to keep sexual offenders off our streets and away from our children, and this legislation provides important tools to help law enforcement and our communities be prepared, informed, and engaged.

We recognize governments fundamental duty to protect the most vulnerable among us, continued Gaetz. I am grateful for the dedication Sens. Grimsley, Sobel, Bradley and Evers have shown in moving this important package through the Senate and look forward to sending it to Speaker Weatherford and then to Gov. Scott.

Diena Thompson, mother of Somer Thompson, traveled from her home in Jacksonville to witness the passage of the Senate bills. Somer Thompson was abducted in 2009 while walking home from school and later murdered. Since her daughters death, Ms. Thompson has become an advocate for increasing protections against sex offenders and sexually violent child predators.

The four bills are these:

SB 522 by Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, creates an arrest notification program to notify DCF when an offender, previously held at the Florida Civil Commitment Center, is arrested and convicted of either a misdemeanor or felony. The bill further requires the state attorney to refer the rearrested offender for civil commitment.

The legislation also allows members of the multidisciplinary team that currently evaluates offenders considered for civil commitment to consult with a state attorney, a law enforcement officer, and victims advocate.

Additionally, SB 522 expands requirements for DCF release notifications to include the sheriff of the county in which the offender intends to reside as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

We want to make sure Florida remains the best place to live, work, raise a family and retire. A crucial part of this effort is to provide our communities with tools that help families protect innocent children from these vicious criminals, said Grimsley. These bills go to great lengths to seal cracks that have allowed many sex offenders to slip under the radar and harm Floridians, and I am proud to see them pass off the Senate floor.

SB 524 by Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, requires a person be defined as a sexually violent predator and be subject to civil confinement after a finding by two or more members of a multidisciplinary team, and requires higher education institutions to tell students about a sexual predators presence on campus.

This landmark legislation will take concrete steps to halt the horrific tragedies facing innocent children and adults. With these new laws, we will do a better job of protecting our neighborhoods, said Sobel. "Additionally, we are making sure our college and university and other post-secondary students have the opportunity to be informed about the presence of sexual offenders in the academic environment.

SB 526 by Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, increases the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sex offenses and also prohibits incentive gain-time for offenders convicted of certain sex offenses. The legislation suspends (tolls) post-release supervision of offenders while in Department of Children and Families' (DCF) custody as part of the civil commitment process and requires the court to order community supervision (split sentences) after release from prison for certain sex offenses.

Recent events have shown we need to do more to keep these criminals away from our children. Through this legislative package, the Florida Senate has taken steps necessary to ensure sex offenders are kept behind bars for longer periods of time, and that once they are allowed back into society, they are closely monitored, said Bradley.

SB 528 by Greg Evers, R-Baker, makes a number of changes to the sex offender registry requirements. The bill creates a process for relevant agencies to be notified of an order granting a registrants name-change petition and for informing FDLE and law enforcement agencies when a registrant whose name was legally changed fails to meet requirements for obtaining a replacement driver license or identification card.

The bill also requires a registrant to report specified information on vehicles the registrant owns and vehicles owned by a person who resides at the registrants permanent residence, Internet identifiers (prior to their use), palm prints, passports, professional license information, immigration status information, and volunteer status at a Florida institution of higher education. SB 528 also requires registrants who are unable to secure or update a driver license or identification card with DHSMV to report any change of residence or change of name within 48 hours after the change.

Further, the bill requires registrants to report information regarding their intention to establish a residence in another country.

I am proud to stand with the rest of the Florida Senate in strengthening protections against sexual offenders, Evers said. Through an enhanced registration process, our communities and law enforcement will be provided with more information, increasing communication and resources available to law enforcement and thereby decreasing loopholes in our criminal justice and civil commitment systems.

While the Senate was passing legislation to protect Floridas vulnerable, the House of Representatives heard the Florida GI Bill, which aims to make Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation.

Gaetz praised Speaker Weatherford as a full partner with the Senate in increasing safeguards against sex offenders and pledged similar collaboration with the House in passing the Florida GI Bill, which will be heard in the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Thursday.

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