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Lawmakers Debate Changes To Sexually Violent Predator Program

The Florida Channel

Florida lawmakers held joint committee meetings this week to gather information on the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, which has been under fire for failing to stop predators from reoffending.

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees the predator program, commissioned an independent study concluding that only two-percent of offenders who were not recommended for civil commitment went on to commit another sexually violent crime. But DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo said that doesn’t mean the program couldn’t use some changes. Among other things, she recommended employing evaluators to oversee the program’s screeners.

“Policies and procedures for the evaluation process are going to be reviewed and evaluated by a team of experts and stakeholders. We are putting together what that team will look like. One of the recommendations is of course that we invite more people into the review process so that we can really make sure we’re getting all views possible,” Jacobo vowed.

Lawmaker recommendations run the gamut. Some are calling for a review of plea deals, stricter offender monitoring or tougher sentences. House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz asked victim’s advocate Lauren Book if it would be beneficial to the community if offenders stayed in prison longer.

“But if you increase the sentences, the amount of time people are in prison, then you decrease the amount of time that they spend in a treatment facility. If you come with the view that these folks cannot truly ever be cured, maybe they can be treated, but they can’t be cured, is it a worthy policy objective to look at ways to rather simply extend their time in a state prison?” Gaetz said.

Book argues most sexually violent crimes go unreported, so although an offender may be convicted of one specific crime, locking them up longer is in society’s best interest. But, Suzonne Kline, the former head of the Sexually Violent Predator Program, cautioned lawmakers about a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

“They were supposed to focus on the Jimmy Ryce Act or the Sexually Violent Predator Program but, what they were really talking about was the gamut of sex offenders – which is a whole, huge spectrum of individuals that are not – they are very heterogeneous and a one size fits all any kind of legislation is not going to work,” Kline said.

Kline agrees with DCF Secretary Jacobo that the program is working but could be updated. Kline added that having an expert management board and halfway houses for high-risk offenders after their release might help.  So too might treating an offender while they’re still locked up. And many lawmakers, including Boca Raton Democratic Representative Irv Slosberg, agreed.

“The key aspect that separates Vermont from Florida is that all sex offenders receive some form of treatment and this treatment process is started and sometimes finished while the inmate is already serving time in jail,” Slosberg said.

But, Slosberg isn’t sure there will be a willingness to fund program expansions like halfway houses, advisory boards or in-prison treatment.

“The problem is no one wants to pay the bill. I mean we could stiff it on to state attorneys, we could move it around everywhere we want to move it around. But, we as a committee have to be committed to funding whatever we ‘re going to do,” Slosberg acknowledged.

Lakeland Republican State Senator Kelli Stargel and Plantation Democratic Representative Katie Edwards filed the first bill dealing with sex offenders Wednesday. But it doesn’t address medical treatment or evaluation of the offenders.  Instead, it makes it illegal for them to possess pornography.