In Arcadia, a town of 6,000 east of Sarasota, there’s a facility wrapped in sky-high barbed wire, where no one can choose to get in or out. This isn’t a prison, and its residents aren’t serving a sentence. It’s the Florida Civil Commitment Center, home to 650 men whom the state fears could molest, assault or rape again if released.
“A lot of people try to take themselves out while they’re in there,” said David, who spent 4 1/2 years in Arcadia, and asked that we conceal his identity. “I’ve seen it, blood all over the place, walking down the hall with a razor, cutting themselves up.”
In Florida, it’s legal to lock someone up indefinitely for a crime they haven’t yet committed. Called civil commitment, it’s similar to forcing a severely mentally ill person into treatment. But this process is reserved for those who were convicted of violent sexual offenses, completed their sentences, but then were judged to still be a risk. Over the past two decades, the practice has spread across the country and is now law in 20 states, plus Washington, D.C. and the federal government.
This week, the civil commitment process was expanded to include offenders serving time in jail. And given certain findings, a state attorney is now required to refer a person to civil commitment, and a judge is required to order a person into civil commitment custody. It’s part of a bundle of new laws that has made the state the harshest one in the country for sex offenders.
David served nine years in prison for rape. He said the woman was his ex-girlfriend and his drug dealer, that he was framed and then took a plea deal on his lawyer’s advice. When his term was finished, the state recommended that they proceed with a civil commitment hearing, and David was driven to Arcadia. When he finally got his trial, 4 1/2 years later, a jury determined that he wasn’t a threat, and released him.
David said the experience was worse than prison. “It’s like a living death sentence,” he said. “You just function from one day to the next.”
Trying future crimes
“The people we’ve kept at the center are likely to have committed any number of violent, horrible, traumatic offenses against victims,” explained Kristin Kanner, head of the county’s Sexually Violent Predator Unit. “There is no price, if you’ve saved one child from being victimized by keeping someone in that program.”
Florida’s civil commitment law has been on its books for 15 years, and the idea is older still. By 1960, in response to high-profile sex crime cases, 26 states had statutes allowing for the indefinite civil commitment of “sexual psychopaths,” instead of prison time. But they’d almost all been repealed or fallen out of use by the time the first modern civil commitment statute was passed in 1990.
Under the current Florida law, at the end of a sexual offender’s criminal sentence, they are psychologically evaluated by at least two people for a “mental abnormality” or “personality disorder” that would predispose them to commit another violent sex crime (only one needs to conduct an in-person interview). If judged to be dangerous, they’re taken to Arcadia, where they wait their commitment trial.
Florida state rep.
Since these trials are not based on past crimes, but rather the probability of future ones, they rely heavily on expert witnesses, and a lucrative cottage industry of these experts – who have billed the state a total of $26 million – has built up around predicting the future behavior of convicted sex offenders.
The state is expecting a dramatic increase in the number of sex offenders who will be civilly committed, and they’re considering adding a wing to the Arcadia facility, or converting a prison to handle the overflow.
And it’s because of what happened last summer.
The death of Cherish Perrywinkle
Donald James Smith, 57, spent three years in a civil commitment facility, before a judge released him and ordered him to undergo treatment. A registered sex offender, Smith was convicted of offenses going back decades. And in 2009, he was arrested again for making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl and impersonating a Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator.
He pled to misdemeanor charges and was booked into the county jail, where inmates aren’t reviewed for civil commitment.
Last June, just three weeks after Smith walked free, he allegedly lured Rayne Perrywinkle and her young children to a Jacksonville Walmart with the promise of a shopping spree. Once there, he’s accused of offering to buy 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle food, and then walking out with her, raping and strangling her, and then dumping her body behind a church. Smith has pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnapping and sexual battery, and his trial is set for October. He’s facing a possible death sentence.
With Jacksonville still in mourning, The Sun-Sentinel published an investigation that found that since Florida’s 1999 civil commitment law, 594 sex offenders were convicted of new sex crimes after they were reviewed and released. Nearly one quarter attacked again within six months of walking out, and six found victims the day they were freed.
These revelations inspired a comprehensive hardening of Florida’s sex offender legislation, signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday. It doubled the mandatory minimum sentence for rapists who victimize children younger than 12 to 50 years, eliminated reducing sex offenders’ prison sentences for good behavior and banned convicted offenders from possessing pornography. It also extended the civil commitment law to offenders serving jail sentences.
“We know one certain fact,” declared state Rep. Matt Gaetz on the House floor. “No one has ever raped a child while sitting in state prison.”
A national study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 5.3 percent of sex offenders were arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release, a much lower recidivism rate than for most other crimes. A 2011 study of sexual offenders in New Jersey found that 5 percent were re-convicted of a new sexual offense within 6 1/2 years. However, those who were considered for civil commitment, but not ultimately committed, had twice the sexual recidivism rate.
“We all failed Cherish Perrywinkle. We failed Cherish Perrywinkle as a society,” said Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, which advocates for evidence-based sex offender policies, as opposed to what the organization calls, “public hysteria following isolated and heinous events.” She is both a sex abuse survivor and the mother of a sex offender.
Colletta believes the state should provide psychiatric care earlier on, as opposed to at the end of a 10- or 20-year sentence, and that the program should do a better job of preparing offenders for a crime-free life beyond bars. Sex offenders are saddled, often for life, with restrictions that make it extremely difficult for them to have stable housing, jobs, families and access to other services. Colletta believes this kind of isolation doesn’t make the public safer.
“We have made them a ward of the state. We have paid to keep them and we have not treated them like a human being with an opportunity to come back into society,” she said. “I can hate what somebody does. They’re still a human being.”
David said Arcadia had no program to help residents readjust back to life on the outside. When he was released, he asked where he should go, and said he was told, “Go buy a tent and live in the woods with the rest of the sex offenders.”
Lauren Book, a sex abuse survivor and the founder of Lauren’s Kids, advocates for victims of childhood sexual abuse and is an ardent supporter of Florida’s civil commitment efforts.
“These are children. And so I fight every day to make it so that these monsters, these sexually deviant behaving individuals are as far away from our children as humanly possible,” she said.
“Do I concern myself with how easy their life is or if they should or should not be?” she continued. “No, no. Because I am still living this.”
Kanner, who directs the county’s sexually violent predator program, described civil commitment, and the treatment available, as a “gift,” an opportunity for sexual offenders to “make some serious and heartfelt, deep-seated changes in their personalities to live a law-abiding life and not victimize people.”
David did not feel the program was a gift. He was “angry beyond words” that after serving his sentence he was detained in another facility, and angry that 4 1/2 years passed before he was given a trial.
Of the 650 men in Arcadia, 72 are waiting for such trials. The program’s director said the wait is because of the timeline of the court and state attorney’s office, and that mounting a defense takes some time. It wasn’t the fault of the sexually violent predator program, she emphasized.
“I saw guys that were in there eight, nine, 10 years and never saw the inside of a courtroom. And if the state has their way about it, they won’t,” David said. “Everything they’re doing, based upon what I know about the law, is violating every constitutional right.”