Bill calls for GPS tracking of sex offenders
Posted on Thu, Mar. 31, 2005

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Less than two weeks after a sex offender on probation confessed to killing a little girl in Central Florida, state lawmakers quickly moved a measure Wednesday requiring future sex offenders on probation to wear global positioning devices that provide authorities real-time information on their whereabouts.

Lawmakers in the House Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the measure and said the need for it was underscored by a Miami Herald story Monday showing that authorities can't find 1,800 sex offenders statewide. Of them, 800 are on probation.

Under Florida law, people who commit a variety of sex-related crimes are designated sexual offenders and, in more serious cases, sexual predators. They are supposed to register their home address with local authorities within 48 hours of moving.

But John Evander Couey didn't register when he moved less than a block from 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford's home in Homosassa Springs, authorities said. Nor was Couey, who was on probation, listed as missing in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database of sex offenders, because few knew he had moved.

Three weeks after Jessica disappeared, Couey confessed to the killing and showed police March 19 where he buried her.

The sponsor of the Jessica Lunsford Act is Rep. Charlie Dean, the former sheriff of Citrus County, where the girl lived.

He said Couey's case shows that law enforcement officers need more tools to track offenders and that it raises questions about how many offenders are prowling neighborhoods.

"What this case shows and what y'all found is we need to do a better job to keep track of these people. We don't need any more tragedies," Dean said.

Not retroactive

The proposed law, expected to easily pass the House and Senate, is not retroactive, however.

That means it would only apply to people convicted after the law passes.

Florida has about 29,000 sex offenders, 5,000 of whom are considered predators.

Using a copy of the state's sexual offender database, The Miami Herald found that of the 1,800 unaccounted for, 800 had committed lewd or lascivious acts against children.

Another 130 had been sentenced for sexual battery against minors under 16. Nearly all the remaining 870 committed sexual crimes against adults or teenagers over the age of 16.

Under the proposed law, an estimated 1,700 future sex offenders would have to wear the global positioning system devices at a cost of $13.3 million annually, the state Department of Corrections estimates.

Using three types of electronic monitoring, the DOC now monitors a total of 707 people - 264 of whom are sex offenders - who are on supervised release.

The bill calls for what is known as an "active" GPS device, the most expensive type of monitoring system because it incorporates cell phone technology that gives police a near real-time read on where the offenders are at any point in the day.

Cheaper option

Another, cheaper GPS device, known as a "passive" system, gives authorities the ability to download information concerning an offender's whereabouts at day's end, rather than by the minute. Radio frequency monitoring devices are the cheapest and essentially alert authorities when an offender is out of range.

State Corrections Secretary James Crosby said his agency would happily track more offenders, "but they've got to give us the money to do it." Crosby's agency is wrangling with lawmakers in the House and Senate who respectively recommended only one-fifth to one-third of the $125 million the governor wants to build more prison beds.

Senate President Tom Lee said he has "a great deal of concern" about the expense of the GPS monitoring. "We're looking for less expensive and just as effective ways of doing it."

Meaningful

Still, Lee spoke with Jessica's father shortly after her death and said he wanted to pass meaningful legislation that doesn't exploit her memory for political gain. Asked if he was surprised that The Miami Herald found so many unaccounted-for offenders, Lee quickly responded in the negative.

Keeping track of sex offenders "probably cries out for more strict requirements at the local level," he said.

Marc Caputo writes for The Miami Herald, a sister paper of The Herald.