Nineteen years after the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce shook the people of our state and our nation, his killer will finally be executed Wednesday.
It’s a fitting time to look at how Florida’s efforts to protect our children from predators have evolved and where more work needs to be done.
The Ryce tragedy prompted the passage of the Jimmy Ryce Act. It provides a process to subject sexually violent predators to civil commitment after their prison sentences are complete if a panel of experts finds that they remain a threat. As significant as that law is, the recent death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle illustrates that Florida needs to regularly review whether the protections we have in place are working and if we need to do more.
That is why this March I will be lacing up my sneakers and beginning my fifth annual 1,500-mile “Walk in My Shoes” journey across Florida. This walk allows me to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and advocate for changes in Florida law that would better protect those who are vulnerable and punish those who offend.
Throughout the past five years, the Walk has become a galvanizing movement with the unique ability to both allow victims of sexual abuse to come forward and begin the healing process and also stir up the will to stand up, speak out and change laws.
Every year, people ask me why I walk, and every year I give the same answer: I walk so that others don’t have to endure the same horrifying abuse that I went through. Stories like Jimmy Ryce’s break my heart and propel me to continue advocating for change.
I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, passing protective legislation year after year, but these stories, and others like them, mean that we must do more.
We must ensure that those who pose a threat to our children are appropriately punished and civilly committed. It truly is the only way we can make sure that violent predators don’t offend again.
That’s why I’ve joined with state legislators on both sides of the aisle who are championing the cause of protecting our children by embracing legislative changes.
Members of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Gayle Harrell, and Sens. Denise Grimsley and Eleanor Sobel are sponsoring legislation that closes loopholes, mandates community supervision of sex offenders and requires college campuses to notify students and staff when sexual offenders and predators live nearby.
Similarly, Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rob Bradley and Greg Evers are sponsoring bills that would eliminate the statute of limitations for certain sexual crimes, increase mandatory minimum sentences for sexually violent predators and those who offend against people with developmental disabilities.
The bills also expand the identifying information sex offenders are required to register with law enforcement to include things such as email addresses, screen names and information on vehicles offenders own or have access to.
While no single law or policy can eliminate childhood sexual abuse, balancing zero-tolerance offender laws with education initiatives moves us closer to a culture where the sexual exploitation of children is not tolerated.
Through our advocacy, we’ve made significant progress. However, we must do more. I urge the Legislature to consider the impact child sexual abuse has on communities and embrace the bills being sponsored this session.
So, this year, on the eve of the execution of Jimmy Ryce’s murderer, if you ask me why I walk, I will tell you: I walk so that the headlines are not filled with reports of tragedy, but are instead filled with stories of hope and healing.
Lauren Book, M.S. Ed., is the founder and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit organization committed to preventing child abuse and healing survivors. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
To follow or join Book for the 1,500-mile Walk In My Shoes event, visit LaurensKids.org.