As Senate President Don Gaetz had promised, his chamber passed several bills on the first day of session aimed at denying convicted sex offenders the chance to hurt children. But critics of the crackdown say it does nothing to prevent first-time offenses, which they say make up the majority of crimes against kids.
For Diena Thompson, the sex predator legislation is personal. The mother from the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park said she was at the Capitol Tuesday because of her daughter Somer.
“Somer, who was a twin, was walking home from school October 19, 2009, and she was abducted and murdered and subsequently found two days later in the Georgia landfill," Thompson says.
Somer was 7 years old when a neighbor killed her. In the almost five years since, her mother has been advocating for educational programs in public schools to teach other children how to avoid danger.
She says, “As a mother in this situation, I can’t help but wonder or think, if Somer had been given the opportunity to receive that program, would I still be talking to all these people? Would I still be here today?”
The man who killed Somer had no sex crimes on his record. Thompson acknowledges the bill package Gaetz calls the "centerpiece" of the session is not aimed at preventing first-time offenses.
“As far as Somer’s case, unfortunately, none of this really would have made a difference for her," she says.
But she says she supports increased monitoring and penalties for convicted offenders nonetheless.
“I can’t change it for myself. I can’t change it for anyone else that has had this happen to them, but hopefully with these new laws coming in, we’ll be able to help other people. And by getting them educated," she says.
The measures passed Tuesday would make it more likely sex offenders are referred to civil commitment proceedings upon their release from prison, meaning more of them could be committed to a facility or subject to community monitoring. The bills also impose longer prison sentences and monitoring periods after release. And they increase requirements for reporting an offender’s whereabouts, including noting whether they’re on a college campus.
In his opening remarks, Gaetz said over the past 15 years, 594 Florida sexual offenders had reoffended after serving time for a previous crime.
Gaetz said, “We will protect our children, and we will scorch the earth against sexually violent predators. And we will start today because we cannot waste one more day and we cannot lose one more child.”
But critics of the proposed laws call them well-intentioned but ultimately nothing more than “feel-good legislation.” Florida Action Committee President Gail Colletta says Gaetz is pushing something that won’t make children safer.
“I understand where he’s coming from and I admire his intent and his beliefs to make Florida a safer state, but instead of saying this is going to be the most unfriendly place for sex offenders, his statement should have been, ‘This is going to be the safest place for children,'” she says.
Colletta’s group advocates for what it calls an evidence-based approach to sex offender legislation. She says the new laws employ more of the tactics that haven’t worked: imposing harsh punishments on all sex offenders regardless of their risk for committing future offenses. She advocates for risk assessments to be administered before sentencing.
And she says violent sex offenders released from prison need step-down housing so they can get re-acclimated to society. "Because some of these guys are going to be, like, 30-plus years that they haven’t been living amongst the rest of us, and now they’re going to be given $100 and a bus ticket," she says.
With research showing more than 95 percent of sexual offenses are committed by first-time offenders, Colletta agrees with Thomspon that education is the most important factor in preventing more cases like Somer’s.