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State moves on tougher sex offender sentences

The House passes the Jessica Lunsford Act, which moves to the Senate for debate today.

Published April 20, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Hours after Jessica Lunsford's father stood on the steps of the Old Capitol and begged lawmakers to get tough with sex offenders, the Florida House unanimously passed legislation requiring life in prison for child molesters.

Many legislators said they wished they could do more than the tough measures included in the Jessica Lunsford Act, named after the 9-year-old Homosassa girl who was abducted and killed in February in a case that drew national attention.

"Your vote for this bill will put us on the road to making sure Jessica Lunsford did not die in vain," said Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, one of the sponsors of the bill.

The House passed the bill two days after another sex offender was charged in the abduction and murder of 13-year-old Sarah Lunde of Ruskin.

Under the bill, anyone convicted of molesting a child under the age of 12 would face a life sentence with a minimum-mandatory 25-year prison sentence. If the offender is released, he or she would be subjected to electronic monitoring for life.

Anyone convicted of molesting a child over 12 could be sentenced to life in prison or lifetime monitoring if convicted of any other crime.

And anyone who harbors a sexual predator or offender could get up to 21/2 years in prison.

The matter now moves to the Senate, where similar legislation will be debated today. The House vote came three hours after Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, urged legislators to create stiffer sentences for sex offenders.

"It's senseless for our children to be taken away from us," said Lunsford, his voice breaking. "We shouldn't be afraid to walk the streets. They should be the ones who are afraid."

Authorities say John Couey, a convicted sex offender, admitted kidnapping and killing Jessica. Couey has an extensive criminal record and was on probation at the time of the crime.

During an emotional debate, a few House members wondered if the bill went far enough.

Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, suggested doing away with the electronic monitoring provision and requiring mandatory life sentences.

"With this bill, we might be able to find out who the perpetrator is more quickly, but it doesn't do anything to protect the child," Vana said. "The best way to monitor these offenders is an early morning roll call in prison."

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, wanted to explore surgically implanting sex offenders with GPS monitors. Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, said he would favor ordering chemical castration for certain offenders.

Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, the bill's sponsor, said he understood the emotions. But he said he was trying to take a more measured approach to tracking the state's registered sex offenders.

"We're just looking to close some of the loopholes in the law as it's currently written," Dean said. Dean first proposed the legislation in March. He had the full support of House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who said he didn't want the legislative session to end without passing laws aimed at strengthening penalties for sex offenders.

"We need to get moving on this issue as soon as possible," Bense told reporters after the vote. "There's some wackos out there."

The House bill was less sweeping than a version in the Senate, focusing on electronic monitoring and avoiding tougher prison sentences for child molesters.

But Dean met for three hours Monday night with Senate sponsor Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, to work out differences. Dean then amended his proposal to mirror the Senate's version, though some minor differences remain.

If passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the new law would take effect Sept. 1.

It won't be cheap to enforce.

The Senate bill allocates $3.6-million for new prison beds. Also, $3.9-million would be set aside to triple the number of electronic monitoring units used by state probation officials, $3-million for an information technology system and about $270,000 for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Argenziano said about 300 people each year would be affected.

A legislative analysis showed the increased penalties will continue to cost the state money each year, from $10.8-million in 2005-06 to $7.9-million in 2006-07 and $9.84-million in 2007-08.

Argenziano said the price is worth it to keep children safe.

"These are our babies," said Argenziano, whose district includes Jessica Lunsford's hometown. "It's our responsibility to protect them."

Bush said he supports Argenziano's bill, but emphasized funding could be a major issue.

"As long as the Legislature puts the funding in place, and deals with these issues if there's going to be tougher sentences, we need to make sure we have the additional money," Bush said.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 20, 2005, 02:56:36]

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