A little less than ten weeks ago, 8-year old Cherish Perrywinkle’s abduction and death at the hands of registered sexual predator Donald Smith made national headlines. It also prompted the Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper to run an investigative series looking at the number of released offenders who reoffend.
That series led Fernandina Beach State Representative Janet Adkins to call a town hall meeting in Jacksonville earlier this week. She said as a parent and a public servant she wants to see more done to strengthen current statutes.
“As a state we have a duty to ensure that our laws and policies are strong enough to protect our children and to ensure greater supervision of those who are in our community,” Adkins told a town hall crowd Wednesday.
Concerned citizens told Adkins they want to see stiffer penalties, including longer sentences, higher fines, and more comprehensive surveillance. Assistant State Attorney Alan Mizrahi said he wishes it was as easy as locking predators up and throwing away the key. But he says not all sexual offender cases are a slam dunk.
“This is not a black and white issue where a person who commits X crime he will get Y punishment, because all of the evidence surrounding the cases is different,” Mizrahi explained.
Still, not everyone is focused on punishment as a means of solving the problem. Some groups, including the Florida Action Committee, whose members advocate a more holistic approach to sex offender issues, said the Sun Sentinel’s series promotes hysteria and knee-jerk reactions from well-meaning lawmakers. The group’s President, Gail Colletta, pointed to a recent fifteen-year study shows most offenders don’t reoffend, especially if they’re treated properly.
“One offense is too many you know, for re-offense. But, there were 31-thousand people that were released. 31-thousand in that time frame, of which, 594 reoffended,” Colletta said.
That’s just less than two percent percent of the total population of released sex offenders in Florida. And Colletta also explained that those recidivists belong to a very particular group of offenders, not all of whom pose a high safety risk.
“The registry in and of itself does not do a good job of separating out one: the level of risk someone poses to the community and two: what their actual offense is,” Colletta argued.
And therein lies a particular distinction: not every sexual offender is a sexual predator. Tallahassee Police Department Spokesman Dave Northway, who used to be in charge monitoring offenders in the capital, says people shouldn’t use the terms interchangeably.
“For law enforcement purposes a sexual predator is someone who has been deemed by the court to be – have had a crime that involved a nature where they said they needed more supervision than the sexual offenders,” Northway clarified.
Since 1998 a sex offender’s rehabilitation has included an initial risk assessment, incarceration and commitment to a civil treatment facility. Upon release from that facility, law enforcement officers check on offenders twice a year and monitor predators quarterly. But there isn’t much in the way of continued treatment. That’s where both sides of the debate agree. During the same town hall meeting with Representative Adkins, Suzonne Kline, the former Director of Florida’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, said the key to preventing sex crime reoccurrences is better long-term management.
“Once a court discharges you, that’s it. So, there’s no transitional program to follow-up with them in the community and these types of people are going to need, as other people have said, very intensive case management, monitoring, supervision and treatment. And with those things the risk then substantially is reduced,” Kline affirmed.
Representative Adkins is expected to file legislation on the issue next session.