SEBRING - The number of sex offenders in Highlands County is growing: 130 in 2010, compared with 139 in 2013.
Even worse, predators - who have committed sexually violent offenses - have nearly doubled, from 14 three years ago to 23 in October 2013, according to Sheriff Susan Benton.
That's one reason why Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, has sponsored SB 522.
"The current Sexually Violent Predator Program was found to have weaknesses that allowed some sexually violent predators to avoid evaluation and civil commitment," Grimsley said. "These weaknesses were raised in the Sun Sentinel series."
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on Aug. 20, 2013 that nearly 600 sexually violent predators had been released, only to be convicted of more than 460 new child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
In an unusually bipartisan and bicameral effort last week, five bills moved through two House and two Senate panels, including the Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, of which Grimsley is a member. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee completed the effort by approving the proposals, which will be taken up by the full Legislature in the spring.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you're witnessing the beginning of landmark legislation," said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota.
Lawmakers focused on the June murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville. Donald Smith, 57, was accused of abducting, raping and strangling her just three weeks after being released from jail on another sex offense. This time, prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
"In the Perrywinkle case, let's be clear: the system failed," lobbyist Ron Book told the House panel.
After release from prison, the state already can civilly commit a sexual offender for treatment if he or she is likely to commit another offense. However, the five bills will plug holes in that civil process. First, said Grimsley, her SB 522 "expands the criteria for civil commitment consideration to include offenders who are serving a sentence in county jail and who have a history of committing a sexually violent offense.
"Second, in certain circumstances, the bill will allow placement of persons who have been inadvertently released from custody without evaluation into civil detention for evaluation," Grimsley said.
"Third, the multidisciplinary teams within the Department of Children and Families will be expanded to include assistant state attorneys, law enforcement officers, and victim advocates," Grimsley said. One must be a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. The team weighs not just sexual offenses, but attempts, solicitations and conspiracies.
"This is intended to help the evaluation teams make better decisions as to whether the person is a sexually violent predator who is likely to commit new sexual crimes unless kept in secure confinement," Grimsley said. Finally, the bill requires that the local sheriff will be notified upon release of a predator back into the community.
"We are very involved with the monitoring of these offenders," Benton said. Deputy Cara Mosely tracks every offender, and the sheriff's office publishes an annual report of sexual offenders in the community and inserts a copy into newspapers.
"We also have Offender Watch, which is accessible from our website, where citizens can see everything and also sign up for email notices of any movement of offenders around whatever address they enter," Benton said. "It could be their home, their child's school or day care."
"If we've learned anything from the evidence, it's that many individuals who specifically go out and target the most vulnerable among us are simply wired differently," said Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. "And I would like to see them behind bars for 50 years - minimally."
"If there is an opportunity to give them the death penalty, I would be all for it," said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story