Florida's tough stand against child molesters

The state will require those released from prison to wear GPS bracelets for life.

When convicted sex offender John Couey fled to Georgia in February after allegedly kidnapping, raping, and killing nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford in northern Florida, it took authorities almost a month to track him down.

Mr. Couey, a pedophile with a long history of abusing children, was one of almost 60 sex offenders whose whereabouts were unknown to authorities in Citrus County after he failed to comply with the requirement to inform them of a new address. He simply disappeared from the state's logs.

The outrage that followed Jessica's killing and the abduction and murder last month of another Florida girl has led to the adoption of one of the toughest child-sex laws in the nation. The Florida measure also highlights the role technology is playing in watching those who may want to bring harm to children.

Signed into law by an outraged Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday, the Jessica Lunsford Act - known as "Jessica's law" - provides for satellite tracking of sex offenders in the state for the first time.

It's a move officials believe will significantly reduce or even eliminate the number of "missing" child molesters in the state. The law also sets a minimum 25-year sentence for anyone convicted of preying on a child under 12.

"Their daughters did not deserve the incredible treatment they received," said Governor Bush (R), who was flanked by relatives of both girls. "Their deaths, however, weren't in vain."

Satellite tracking, using the Global Positioning System (GPS) originally developed for the military, is not a new tool in the fight against crime. Many states routinely use ankle bracelets and similar devices to keep tabs on parolees.

But Florida, which has about 30,000 registered sex offenders, is one of a growing number of states to embrace the technology to track their every move. A number of states already require some form of lifetime supervision of sex offenders, including GPS tracking.

But Florida is believed to be the first to mandate lifetime satellite monitoring for an entire group of people who commit a certain crime.

"These people never change their ways; they just change their address," says Allan Measom, president of Raptor Technologies, a Texas-based company that has developed a computer system to identify undesirables attempting to gain admission to schools, and who has long advocated setting up a national sex offender database. "The technology is out there [for identifying and tracking offenders]. It's too bad it takes tragedies such as this for it to happen."

A recent Miami Herald investigation claimed that Florida's law-enforcement agencies had lost track of more than 1,800 sex offenders, highlighting the need for better tracking. The state is to spend about $7 million of the $11 million appropriated for Jessica's law on the GPS devices, which will involve offenders wearing an ankle tag and a transmitting device around their waist.

The offender's exact position can be determined 24 hours a day on the Internet, although in states where such technology is already in use, parole officers and relevant authorities are kept informed of their movements by an e-mail once or twice a day.

If an offender makes a visit to somewhere off limits - close to a school, for example - an instant notification is sent to authorities by a cellphone call or pager message.

Pro-Tech, a company based in Odessa, Fla., provides its CrimeTrax GPS equipment to more than 120 federal, state, county, and local government agencies, including in Florida, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Pennsylvania, Oregon, and New York are among those considering the statewide introduction of satellite tracking for sex offenders. New York Gov. George Pataki (R) has called for his state to follow Florida's lead by mixing tracking with harsher penalties for offenders.

"It's one thing to have tough laws to track their presence. But there are certain among them that should not be on the street ever again," he said.

Mr. Measom's firm, meanwhile, has installed its V-Soft system in more than 600 schools nationwide. It scans a visitor's driver's license and instantly matches it to the company's state-by-state database of sex offenders. He says that if the school near Jessica Lunsford's home, where Couey had worked briefly as a laborer, had installed such a system, he could have been identified much sooner.

"As a parent, I'd want to know exactly who was coming into the school with my kids," Measom says.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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