Amid increasing evidence that child molesters are sexual predators for life, Florida lawmakers are considering life for sexual predators.
State Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, hopes to seize the opportunity of a special legislative session that begins today and runs through Friday to make headway with his “Sexual Predators Elimination Act.”
The measure, HB 251, seeks mandatory life sentences without parole or eligibility for gain time for individuals designated as sexual predators. Under Florida law, these are individuals convicted of sexual battery on a child 12 or younger, repeat sexual offenders, sexual offenders who use physical violence and sexual offenders who use or threaten the use of a deadly weapon.
“We need to lock them up and throw away the key,” Allen told WND. Otherwise, he says, they continue to prey on children and teenagers to feed a need that never goes away.
“I’ve done a lot of research on it. I’ve gone with the [Department of Corrections] officers and probation officers to the homes of sexual predators,” Allen continued. “One of the sexual predators said it the best: ‘I want to do better. But, sir, it’s like if someone tried to sit you down guaranteeing you’ll do 15 sessions of counseling, and in that 15 sessions I’m going to talk you out of your sexual preference and get you to do something else.’”
Florida chief financial officer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher recently announced he also supports mandatory life with no parole for sexual predators – on the first offense.
“I actually had a conversation with a predator who was in jail for life,” Gallagher told WND. “He killed kids after he molested them. He flat out told me he’d do it again if he got out. These are dangerous, sick people and there is no way they should be allowed to be on the streets.”
The mother of two boys molested by a neighbor over a period of three years starting when the boys were aged 11 and 13 says it’s about time lawmakers see child molestation for the heinous crime that it is.
“This is the worst thing that could ever happen to your child, to be sexually assaulted by an adult,” the mother, who wishes not to be named to protect the privacy of her sons, told WND. She fears her sons, one of whom talked about killing himself, were seriously psychologically scarred.
“I’m less trustworthy of all people, especially adults,” one son wrote in an impact statement for the court. “I was conned by a master of deception.”
Stephen Lee Edmonds, 47, pleaded guilty in June of 2003 to molesting the brothers and a third boy. The former Northeast Florida Builders Association president and deacon at the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with 13 felony counts, 10 of which were lewd and lascivious molestation. The boys claim he showed them pornographic material, regularly talked to them about masturbation, asked them if he could “whip him off,” and fondled their buttocks and genitals.
When the mother first learned about what happened, she says she became physically ill and vomited.
“After I tried to raise them with a strong moral code, by having them in
private schools, team sports, Scouts and taking them to Mass every Sunday,
making sure they dressed properly and that they didn’t watch the wrong kinds
of movies, and then behind my back this evil lurked and desecrated the
foundation my husband and I formed for their lives,” she said. “As a parent
whose job it is to nurture and protect, I felt like I had the carpet ripped
out from under me.”
According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, the number of convicted sexual predators increased from 471 in 1997, the year the state began posting information about them on the Internet, to 5,492 today. The number of convicted sexual offenders has gone from 8,000 to 30,735 over that same time period.
Why are there so many cases?
“We’re letting them out on probation,” answered Gallagher.
A recent case in point is that of Debra Lafave, a 25-year-old middle school teacher who pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery last week for having sex with a 14-year-old male student. She was sentenced to three years of house arrest and seven years of probation.
The sentence sparked public outrage and charges Lafave received special treatment because she is an attractive woman. Prior to the plea agreement, Lafave’s attorney argued his client couldn’t survive prison.
“To place an attractive young woman in that kind of hell hole is like placing a piece of raw meat in with the lions,” said John Fitzgibbons.
Although Edmonds faced as many as 70 years in prison for 13 felony counts, he pleaded guilty to only three counts, one count each for three boys. He was originally charged with assaulting five boys, however. Under the terms of his plea agreement, the sentencing range was set at zero to six years. Circuit Court Judge John Skinner sentenced him to one year in county jail and five years of probation. Florida law required Edmonds to serve only eight months of his sentence.
This is a typical scenario, according to law enforcement officials, who report most sexual offenders are prosecuted for only a fraction of their crimes. What’s more, they say most have many more victims than are ever reported. Investigators say only one victim in 10 comes forward.
Prosecutors will generally offer plea deals when they feel there isn’t sufficient evidence to get a conviction. Detectives in Edmonds’ case, however, felt confident the evidence they gathered in a sting operation was strong. It included a tape-recorded phone call from Edmonds admitting to the crimes, over two dozen pages of instant-message e-mails soliciting sex with the boys, and the testimony of the victims. Although the boys were willing and anxious to face their accuser in court, they were denied the opportunity. State attorney Harry Shorstein justified the plea deal as sparing the victims from having to testify at a trial.
“The boys were assaulted all over again by the verdict,” lamented the mother. “These sex offenders are being sentenced like they stole a car and not like they have stolen and desecrated the innocence of a child’s life.”
Nancy McGowan, board member of The Justice Coalition, a victims’ advocacy organization, states the problem lies with state attorneys who don’t view child molestation as a serious crime and consequently fail to follow the recommended state sentencing guidelines during plea negotiations.
“There are revolving-door predators who get set free to repeat their crimes,” said McGowan. “I think the proliferation of these cases is going to continue until legislation addressing state attorney accountability is put in place in conjunction with a mandatory minimum prison sentence.”
Allen’s proposed legislation prohibits plea bargaining with predators.
“I think it’s better not to plea, but to go ahead and pursue these cases and let it be known throughout the land that in the state of Florida if they catch you they’re going to try and put you away forever,” he told WND.
Earlier this year, cable news networks trained a national spotlight on Florida after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde of Ruskin were kidnapped and killed within weeks of each other. The authorities fingered convicted sex offenders in both cases.
As a result, cities and towns across the state have tightened zoning laws that determine where convicted sexual offenders may live. In May, state legislators passed the Jessica Lunsford Act, which mandates 25-year minimum sentences for the worst sex offenders and predators and requires them to wear GPS-monitoring anklets when they’re released on probation for the rest of their lives.
While he supported these measures, Allen aims to get to the root of the problem with his no-parole proposal.
“We’re writing all of these wild zoning laws and imposing all this extra restriction and extra cost and doing all these machinations to accommodate a repeat offender hanging around us. When we can get away from all those …
expensive law-enforcement time-wasting factors by simply going straight to the root of the problem, and that is the offender, and put them in a locked up place where we know we’re safe,’” said Allen.
“Mr. Allen is out to get votes,” responded George Crossley, president of the central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m reasonably cynical enough to know that these folks really don’t care one way or another about what happens to children, they care what it’ll take for them to win the next election.”
Crossley told WND he’s concerned about the 170,000 family members of sex offenders across the state being adversely affected by what he views as a building hysteria.
“About 3 percent of the people that we’re talking about here are sexual predators who deserve to be watched,” he said. “The other 97 percent are sexual offenders, some of them who 20, 25, 30, 40 years ago did something, and in many cases it was underage sex. … The facts are in most of these cases, you’re not talking about people who are a threat to anybody. And yet, since Jessica Lunsford’s murder, which was basically the fault of law enforcement in more ways than one, we’ve had one Draconian statute proposed after another.”
Dr. Louis Schlesinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, maintains the no-parole idea is appropriate for pedophiles, whom he calls incurable.
“You cannot change their sexual-arousal pattern,” said Schlesinger. “You cannot take a heterosexual and make that person a pedophile by therapy. It can’t work. So why would the converse be true?”
“Lawmakers need to understand that preying on children is a way of life for these sexual offenders,” McGowan stressed. “Unless they’re being incarcerated, they’ll be out in the community molesting our children.”
Schlesinger said crafting government policy boils down to assessing how much risk society wants to tolerate.
“You can teach someone to control their urges, but then you’re relying totally on the offender to control himself. If society wants to let him out, it should not come as a shock when you see what you see happening in the news all the time.”
According to criminologists, most sexual abusers target their own children, and most gain access to children by holding positions of trust.
In his public-safety policy Gallagher announced last week as part of his campaign for the governor’s office he honed in on “persons in positions of trust” who sexually abuse children, calling for mandatory prison time with a minimum one-year sentence.
“When a teacher, youth leader, religious leader, public-safety officer, or other person in a position of trust abuses a child, they destroy the child’s faith in institutions that should be a source of support and protection,” said Gallagher. “With people applying for jobs that are positions of trust, I’d like to see a little statement on the bottom of the application that says, ‘If you touch one of these kids, the penalty is life in prison. So if you get an urge, you better think twice.’”