Amid tears, ovation, Senate passes Lunsford Act
The proposal that gets tough on sex offenders returns to the House for final approval before it goes to Gov. Bush.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published April 22, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - As Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy watched from the gallery, Sen. Nancy Argenziano issued a tearful warning from the Senate floor on behalf of Jessica Lunsford.
"When a little girl is just thrown away in garbage bags and thrown into a dirt pit, that just ticks me off," said Argenziano, slamming a hand on her desk, her voice breaking with emotion. "So my message to those sex offenders out there, the state of Florida is not going to tolerate it anymore."
With that, the Senate unanimously approved the Jessica Lunsford Act, a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 25 years to life for people who molest children under 12. An offender released from prison must wear an electronic monitor for life.
Criminals with a sex offense in their history who violate probation also would be required to wear an electronic monitor.
The House approved the proposal Tuesday. Because the Senate added some last-minute amendments, the bill returns to the House for final approval before it is sent to Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to sign it.
John Couey, who is charged with killing Jessica, was a registered sex offender who was violating probation at the time of the crime.
Another registered sex offender was charged less than a week ago in the abduction and murder of 13-year-old Sarah Lunde of Ruskin. David Onstott, 36, spent six years in prison for raping a woman.
The Senate spent little time debating the legislation, which moved quickly through committees after it was introduced less than a month ago.
Argenziano, who worked long hours and weekends to draft the proposal, received a standing ovation before the vote.
"Senator Argenziano, if you never pass another bill, that will be okay. Because you will have done your job up here," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. "I don't know if this bill would have saved those two little girls that were murdered, but I know that other children will be saved because of this bill."
Dawsy, who was emotional during the search for Jessica, gave Argenziano a thumbs up after the bill was passed. Afterward, he commended the Legislature.
"This is a step in the right direction," Dawsy said. "I can only tell you that our young children are much safer today because of the actions of the Senate than they were prior to this bill being passed."
Dawsy particularly supported a provision making it a third-degree felony for knowingly harboring a registered sex offender. Sheriff's deputies say they spoke with Couey's housemates twice in the days after Jessica vanished, but none of them told deputies that Couey, who wasn't living where he was supposed to, was staying at the mobile home.
"There's a very good possibility this will save a life," Dawsy said. "I'm very, very happy with this."
The original House bill was less sweeping than the Senate version, focusing on electronic monitoring and avoiding tougher prison sentences. But House sponsor Charles Dean, R-Inverness, met with Argenziano Monday night to work out differences and now the versions are closer.
The House could approve the proposal as early as today. The new law would take effect Sept. 1.
Argenziano added an amendment Thursday requiring open bidding for the electronic monitoring. Lobbyists say at least three companies qualify.
Dean said he supported the amendment. "I want it to be open to the latest technology and I want it to be open for bid," Dean said.
The law also requires several studies by state agencies, including an analysis of whether too many criminals are being released on probation. Argenziano said she hopes the Legislature uses the information to pass more laws next year.
"This doesn't stop defective people. We did our job as far as we can . . . but don't think there aren't some sick people out there," Argenziano said. "Even though we're humans, we have defective people amongst us. And they are still out there."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Joni James contributed to this report. Carrie Johnson can be reached at 850 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org