Proposed legislation nearly would prohibit sex offenders from living in the city.
MIAMI BEACH -- Sprinkled among the pulsing dance clubs, flashy cars and all-night, every-night glitter of this adult playground are pockets of another world. There are 15 schools and 38 parks in this gangly, 7 1/2-mile-long barrier island city, each pulsing with a sound of its own: children's voices.
Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer is close to building a virtual wall around the children, rewriting municipal law to almost entirely block registered sex offenders from moving into his city. If Dermer succeeds -- his proposal was passed unanimously in the first of two required votes -- experts say Miami Beach would have one of the most restrictive sex offender policies in the United States, if not the most restrictive.
Dermer's measure would more than double the buffer zone required between the homes of registered sex offenders and schools, parks, school bus stops or any "place where children regularly congregate." It is one in a flurry of proposals inspired by the arrests of registered sex offenders in the separate killings of two central Florida girls whose bodies were found one month apart.
The slayings of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde have led to proposed state laws that would require lifetime monitoring of some sex offenders by global satellite positioning systems, mandatory quarter-century prison terms for sex offenses against children younger than 12, and automatic jailing of sex offenders who violate probation until a judge can determine whether they represent a threat.
Both the Miami Beach measure and the state proposals, with the exception of the stalled probation violation bill, are gliding through the voting process and likely to become law soon. It is a familiar pattern: awful crimes against children, quick new laws.
Will it work?
Still, even proponents of the new measures are unsure whether they will prevent children from being abused.
"Legislators very often don't know what to do, but they want to do something," said Louis Schlesinger, a John Jay College psychology professor who was a researcher for a Catholic Church review board that investigated the priest sex abuse scandal.
Schlesinger offered informal advice to Dermer and supports the Miami Beach measure but is unsure whether it will be as successful as hoped.
For one, he said, setting up residential buffer zones does not prevent predators from entering an area where children gather. "How are you going to know?" he said. "Are they going to wear a big 'S' on their chest?" A Miami Herald columnist suggested something more permanent: a tattoo on the forehead.
The long reach of 24-hour cable news has played a huge role in the push for new laws. The search for Jessica -- which ended March 19, when she was found with her hands bound after being abused -- was tracked intensively, with cable news networks breaking away from other reports for new developments.
"This wouldn't be happening today if wasn't for the media," said Florida state Rep. Charles Dean Sr., R, a former sheriff in Citrus County, where Jessica was found. Dean has sponsored a House bill named in her honor.
Jessica's father, the plainspoken Mark Lunsford, became an immediately recognizable face during the search for his daughter, his agony on display for days before a national audience. Since then, he has been equally visible, appearing on morning television news programs to talk about toughening sex offender laws and lobbying lawmakers in Tallahassee. During one visit to the Florida state capitol, Lunsford wore a tie with his daughter's image on it.
"You can never legislate away the opportunities for criminals," Dean said. "However, we can assure these folks we are in the process of doing everything we can."
In the past few days, the public's rage about sex crimes has been palpable. Protesters picketed the home of a registered sex offender in Winter Park, Fla., and a convicted child molester committed suicide in Ocala, Fla., after neighbors made his presence known by placing fliers near his home.
Dean's "Jessica Lunsford Act" -- which was passed unanimously and will be combined with a similar Senate bill that was also passed unanimously -- will increase the mandatory prison term for sex crimes against children younger than 12 from 10 to 25 years. After being released, the offenders would be monitored by global satellite positioning devices for the rest of their lives. Such monitoring is growing in popularity nationwide, though Florida would be among the first to require that it continue for an offender's lifetime.
The law would also let prosecutors file felony charges against anyone who knowingly lives with a sex offender who violates reporting requirements.
Dean acknowledges that his law is not a cure-all. In fact, he said, Citrus County officials did a poor job of using existing laws to monitor John Couey, the sex offender accused of killing Jessica. A recent study by the Miami Herald revealed that state police have lost track of 1,800 of Florida's 34,000 registered sex offenders and predators.
All but four tiny neighborhoods, including parts or all of three manmade islands connected to the city by bridges, would be off-limits to sex offenders under Dermer's proposal. "We would like to have a city that did not have any registered sexual predators," he said.
Dermer, a Miami Beach native, said the Lunsford tragedy prompted him to act on what he considers an inconsistency in the Florida laws that establish the minimum buffer zones used by most cities.
Last year, he said, an adult-products trade show that wanted to rent the convention center ran afoul of the 2,500-foot buffer zone required between businesses that sell "obscene" products and schools. It made no sense to Dermer that the buffer zone for adult products was 2,500 feet while that for sexual offenders was 1,000 feet. His proposal would make the two buffer zones the same, higher number.
But there is still the problem of sex offenders who live in the city -- there are 36. Dermer says he may be able to evict them, though he has not included such a provision in his measure.
Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida have said they generally favor electronic monitoring of sex offenders, such as the proposals being discussed in Tallahassee, but they are not so sure about Dermer's proposal. Federal courts in Iowa and Arkansas have barred enforcement of 2,000-foot buffer zones for sex offenders.