TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida legislators from both parties are coming to the Capitol next week in agreement that some of the first bills they’ll pass could have saved the life of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl.
The death of Cherish Perrywinkle, who was abducted at a Wal-Mart, combined with a newspaper investigation into the state’s sexual predator civil commitment program have created a rarely seen unity in a process that’s more often known for division and political differences.
And a package of bills that deal with sexual offender laws is ready for a vote as soon as the Senate begins its annual 60-day session. The House is expected to approve them the following week.
“If the laws we are proposing today would have been the laws a year or two years ago, Cherish Perrywinkle would be alive,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chairman.
The main goal of the proposed laws will be to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment of sexual predators once they finish their prison terms. The law named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County is designed to keep the most violent sexual predators locked up. But it’s become clear since it took effect in 1999 that there are loopholes.
A review team evaluates predators on a psychological basis to determine if they are a still a threat after their sentences. If they believe so, a trial is held and if a jury agrees, the predator is committed to what looks like a prison, but is technically a psychiatric treatment center. People who are committed are reevaluated and can be released if determined that they are no longer a risk – though officials who run the treatment center have said they are never truly “cured.”
Cherish and her mother were shopping when a man befriended them and offered to buy them clothing and food, investigators say. Smith said he was taking Cherish to a McDonald’s in the Wal-Mart but he instead led her out of the store. Her body was found the next day. She had been strangled. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, is charged with her murder. Smith was released from jail the month before the death after being caught making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl, making verbal threats and impersonating Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator.
Smith has a long history of sex offenses dating to a 1993 conviction for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene material. He had already been reviewed for civil commitment two times previously, but he wasn’t eligible for another review after being released just before the Perrywinkle killing. Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal.
“This tragic, horrific case really shined a light on some of those really big gaping holes in the law that couldn’t be ignored,” said Lauren Book, a sexual abuse survivor who now advocates for tougher laws.
For more than a decade, Book and her father, lobbyist Ron Book, have sought bills to prevent abuse, help victims and punish offenders each legislative session. Book said she’s never seen such a thoughtful, cooperative approach by lawmakers to tighten sexual offense laws.
“To have these bills the first day of the legislative session – it’s unheard of. I’m at a loss for words,” she said.