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Questions Linger Over Jimmy Ryce Act's Prevention Of Violence

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Juan Carlos Chavez's inadvertent legacy to the people of Florida was a piece of legislation now known as the Jimmy Ryce Act, in honor of the nine-year-old boy Chavez raped and murdered in 1995. It was one of those crimes so heinous that it inspired action.

Under the Jimmy Ryce Act, the state waits at the prison gates to intercept sex offenders when they’re released. If experts determine the ex-convict is likely to commit a new violent sex crime, the experts can go to court and ask a jury to confine the offender in what's called a "civil commitment center" to be treated until considered safe for release.

"I think the community is a lot safer because of this," says Audrey Frank-Aponte, Miami-Dade County's chief sex crimes prosecutor. "The fact that these violent sex predators are not on the streets and are detained at the civil commitment center gives me great comfort, not only for my own circle and my own close friends and associates, but also the community."

But whether community safety has actually improved under the Jimmy Ryce Act has recently been disputed. A recent Sun-Sentinel newspaper investigation cast doubt on the state's ability to identify potential re-offenders. Over the last 14 years, it found, nearly 600 released sex offenders deemed harmless enough to skip the confinement and treatment were convicted of new rapes, child molestations and 14 murders.

The Florida Legislature is expected to tighten up the law this spring but questions remain about the treatment that occurs, supposedly to neutralize the violent sex predators there, inside the civil commitment center in the Desoto County town of Arcadia.

John Selden, an assistant public defender in the judicial circuit that surrounds Daytona Beach, works almost exclusively on Jimmy Ryce cases. He says the treatment his clients receive is a one-size-fits-all type that doesn't recognize the variety of sexual predation.

"The respondents in these groups fall into two groups, pedophiles or child molesters and rapists," Selden says. "Those are two rather distinct and different groups because they have different motivations and different reasons for what they do. But that same program is applied to both types of individuals."

For legal reasons, the quality of the treatment program at the civil commitment center is less important than the fact of its existence. Since locking up people again after they've already completed their prison sentences appears to violate the Constitution three different ways, it's important for Jimmy Ryce commitments to be construed as civil processes, like Florida's Baker Act, and not criminal, which would trigger due process issues as well as problems with the double jeopardy and ex post facto clauses.

How do you tell the difference between a civil commitment and an illegally extended prison sentence? Civil commitments have three main features: They do not punish. They isolate the individual to protect himself and the public, and -- importantly -- they provide treatment.

In a case called Hendricks vs Kansas, the U. S. Supreme Court reviewed a Kansas law almost identical to Florida's Jimmy Ryce Act. It found all of those elements and declared Jimmy Ryce-style commitments to be civil and, therefore, constitutional.

So is the treatment anything more than a thin veil over obvious constitutional flaws in the Jimmy Ryce Act? That's a hard question for Jill Levenson, who treats sex offenders and studies them at Lynn University, because she says there are harm reduction methods that work even on hard-wired, unchangeable personality traits like pedophilia.  "Many individuals with the disorder of pedophilia can learn strategies for managing their behavior, controlling their thoughts and becoming more aware of the harm that is caused by sexual abuse," Levenson says.

Prosecutors agree that while sex offender treatment is legally necessary to make the Jimmy Ryce Act constitutional, it doesn't get at the root cause and it can't change child molesters and rapists into normal people anymore than normal people can be turned into predators.

"It's accepted in the world of criminology the sexual offenders are the least curable," said Miami-Dade- State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "They haven’t really found a cure for these kinds of crimes."

Editors Note:  An earlier version of this piece contained a quote which gave an example that could be interpreted as being associated with a negative stereotype.