MIAMI — Outraged over the recent kidnap-slayings of two girls, Florida lawmakers gave all but final approval Thursday to legislation that would keep sexual predators of children behind bars for life, or subject the criminals to round-the-clock electronic monitoring.
Experts called the legislation the most sweeping attempt by a state to prevent convicted child molesters from hurting more victims. The measure has enjoyed unusually broad backing, from Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bush has indicated that he would sign into a law a final version, expected after the Florida House approves the bill adopted Thursday by the state Senate. The House had passed a version Tuesday.
The Jessica Lunsford Act is named for a 9-year-old girl from the Gulf Coast who was found dead last month, and the suspect is a man known to be a sex offender. The bill would mandate a 25-year-to-life prison term for people convicted of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child under 12, and a lifetime of tracking by radio or satellite system if they were released.
"We want to make sure that with people with records, we have them under supervision, that we know where they are going to be every minute for the rest of their lives, as long as they are subject to the monitoring," said Republican state Rep. Charles Dean, sponsor of the House bill.
Dean is the former sheriff of Citrus County, where Jessica lived. The body of the Homosassa, Fla., girl was unearthed March 19 after John Evander Couey, a registered sex offender who hadn't told police he had moved, told authorities where to look.
According to the case file released Wednesday, Couey, 46, said he took the girl from her bed during a night in late February. She was sexually assaulted, and apparently buried alive inside two plastic trash bags, the documents show. The cause of death has been tentatively listed as asphyxiation.
When Jessica's body was found, her hands were bound, and she was clutching a purple stuffed dolphin.
Three weeks later, in the Tampa area, another known sex offender was charged with killing 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde. David Onstott, who had dated her mother, has reportedly confessed to choking the girl to death, then dumping her body in a pond.
The cases, prominently covered by the media, galvanized the Florida Legislature into action.
"Everyone has a sense of sickness, disgust -- and a sense of fear for our children," Dean said by telephone from Tallahassee, the state capital.
To reconcile minor differences in the bills, the Senate version would be sent to the lower house today for approval, said Judy Wells, chief legislative assistant to Republican state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, the Senate sponsor.
Bush said he "wholeheartedly supported" a crackdown on child molesters. Jacob DiPietre, the governor's press secretary, said Florida had more than 35,000 sexual predators and offenders in its data base.
All 50 states have passed laws requiring sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies since 1996 when Congress enacted Megan's Law, inspired by the case of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl raped and killed by a child molester living across the street from her family.
But a national survey conducted in 2003 by Parents for Megan's Law, an advocacy group in Stony Brook, N.Y., found that 24% of the more than 500,000 sex offenders in the country were not complying with the registration requirements, said Laura Ahearn, the group's executive director.
"We have a system where we expect the most cunning and devious of our criminals to register themselves," Ahearn said. "What we'd like to see is lifetime supervision."
Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Assn., said the Florida legislation was of unprecedented scope and severity. No other state, he said, had legislation on the books that would subject people to electronic monitoring for life.
GPS monitoring systems use signals from satellites to calculate an accurate location. Florida uses GPS and radio monitoring to help supervise 150,000 people on probation, said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.
Ivey said an offender was required to wear an ankle bracelet and to carry a lunchbox-sized transmitter that showed his location, calculated from the satellite navigation system to his probation officer on a computer screen. An alert sounds if the bracelet is tampered with or separated from the transmitter.
Ivey cautioned, though, that technology "is not a steel cage around an offender preventing him or her from committing a new crime."
The legislation also creates a new felony: the harboring of a registered sex offender or predator without notifying authorities.
Police in Homosassa had arrested Couey's half-sister and two others for failing to notify authorities that Couey had moved in with them, but prosecutors declined to file charges, saying Florida law did not require someone to inform police of a sex offender's whereabouts.
The Jessica Lunsford Act would close that loophole.