Sexual predator bills moving swiftly

By Tarik Minor, Anchor-reporter, tminor@wjxt.com
Published On: Mar 11 2014 03:49:12 PM EDT
Updated On: Mar 11 2014 08:07:47 PM EDT

The legislation Diena Thompson is pushing is about to pass the House. It's headed to Governor Scott's desk. The legislation includes four bills that are supposed to keep sexually violent predators in prison longer, and close loopholes in current laws.

ORANGE PARK, Fla. -

Sweeping new legislation targeting Florida's sexual predators is making its way through the Legislature at a swift pace.

The House was expected to pass four Senate bills Tuesday, which means the next stop for the legislation is the governor's desk, where it would become law. That could happen in as early as a few weeks, or Gov. Rick Scott could choose to sign the sex offender package bills after the legislative session.

Whenever it is, the day can't come soon enough for Diena Thompson, the mother of slain 7-year-old Somer Thompson. Diena Thompson plans to be present when as the governor makes history.

"One of the things I said at the beginning about this is that if I could have anything out of this, I would have Somer's story would essentially go down in history," Thompson said.

She has turned her pain into progress in the fight against sexual predators, like the one who killed her daughter. Investigators said 26-year-old Jarred Harrell abducted and killed Somer in 2009 while she was walking home from school.

Four year later, Somer's mom is looking forward to standing next to the governor as he signs new bills into law. She said failure wasn't an option.

"To me, if I gave up and didn't keep going, to me, the monster won," Thompson said. "And I am way too stubborn. I wanted people with the likes of them to know I wasn't going away and I wasn't going to shut up anytime soon."

Lawmakers heard Thompson's call for stricter laws. They were also pushed into action following Cherish Perrywinkle's death last year. Police said the 8-year-old was abducted from a Walmart by Donald Smith, who had a long history of sexual crimes.

Smith had previously posed as a child protection worker and tried to take an 8-year-old girl away from her parents. Because he didn't succeed, he got four years in jail and no treatment. Within days of his release, police said he killed Cherish.

Fixing the holes in the sex predator law that let Smith loose became the top priority of legislative leaders this year. State Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said there are no guarantees, but "had that bill been into effect, I think there would have been a much greater chance that it may not have occurred."

Under the new bills, sexually violent predators would be in prison longer and authorities would find it easier to keep them past their sentence if they are deemed to be a danger to society. The legislation makes it easier to commit sexually violent offenders for treatment, requiring just two of five votes from a panel of experts.

"We have to do everything we can to give law enforcement the tools to protect the public against these monsters," Sen. Rob Bradley said.

Bradley authored one of the new laws, which restricts offenders from earning reduced jail sentences for good behavior. The other laws force sexual predators to disclose more personal information, and they close the loopholes that would help them avoid civil commitment after serving their jail time.

"It sends a clear message to the monsters out there and the victims that this behavior is intolerable," Bradley said.

"It means people are finally starting to listen, and it doesn't just stop here changing the laws," Thompson said. "We need to educate our kids and we need to educate our parents."

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