House Panel OKs Sex-Offender Tracking Bill

Published Thursday, March 31, 2005
Global positioning technology would help officials keep tabs on predators.

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE -- Moving quickly in the wake of the highprofile abduction and murder of a 9-year-old Homosassa girl, the Legislature began consideration Wednesday of a proposal to require real-time electronic tracking of sex offenders on probation.

The bill, approved unanimously by the House Criminal Justice Committee, is named the Jessica Lunsford Act, for the little girl whose body was found March 19 behind a neighbor's mobile home, 150 yards from her bedroom.

The man accused of her murder is a registered sex offender who was on probation at the time.

"It's unfortunate it takes the life of this little girl to point out this need," said Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dean, the former sheriff of Citrus County where Jessica lived, would require global positioning-based monitoring of people on probation, or some other form of conditional release, if they committed certain sex crimes.

The measure only applies to people convicted of those crimes in the future, not those sex offenders already in the community, although several lawmakers said they were trying to figure out a way to make it retroactive.

The bill also creates a new requirement that juries and judges consider whether someone was a sexual predator as an aggravating factor in their sentencing in certain cases.

The measure so far has only been assigned to one committee so it could come up for a full House vote very quickly. A similar bill is being worked on in the Senate, but hasn't come before a committee there yet.

Senate President Tom Lee has met with Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who investigated Jessica's murder and is pushing for tougher laws dealing with sexual offenders. He's also spoken to Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, who is pushing for tougher laws.

John Couey, the 46-year-old registered sex offender who police say confessed to abducting and slaying Jessica, is scheduled for arraignment April 12 on four charges, including first-degree murder.

The Department of Corrections already uses a variety of electronic monitoring devices to track people on probation or house arrest. More than 200 are tracked by "active GPS," which allows near-real-time reporting of the person's location anytime officials want to know where they are. The system can also be programmed to alert officials when the person enters an area where they shouldn't be. For example, some sex offenders are barred from being near schools and playgrounds.

With the outrage over Jessica's murder there's likely to be little opposition to the measure -- but the cost would be a factor. Corrections officials say the first year they'd expect 180 people to be monitored, estimated to cost $1.4 million. By the third year, officials estimate more than 1,600 offenders would be tracked by the system at a cost of more than $13 million.

"Whatever passes, naturally the funding will have to be there," said Corrections Secretary James Crosby, whose department includes probation officers. He said electronic monitoring was a good tool and that sexual offenders seemed a logical class of people for it to be used on.

Jessica's family has said they didn't know a sex offender lived nearby. The House measure doesn't deal with notifying residents when a sex offender moves nearby, but Lee, R-Brandon, said it was one thing the Senate was considering.

"There are probably many, many counties that are not notifying neighborhoods when sexual offenders are in the area," Lee said.

The House measure makes it a felony for someone to allow a sex offender to live in their home if they know that the offender hasn't complied with the sex-offender law.

Couey stayed with a relative who knew he was a sex offender and even after Jessica disappeared didn't tell police he had been there.

The bill also would make sexual predators wait longer before they can get off the list. Some sex offenders who stay out of trouble for 20 years can petition a court to remove the designation. The bill would require they wait 30 years before applying to be taken off the registry.

House Criminal Justice Chairman Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, said the pendulum was swinging back toward the rights of victims instead of criminals and told lawmakers they couldn't go too far in cracking down on sex offenders.

"Whatever your mind can conjure up . . . whatever it takes to keep these sick individuals from preying on children," Kravitz said.