The state of Florida has more than 600 sex offenders locked up in its civil commitment facility in Acadia, and many will never leave.
In 1999, Florida enacted the Jimmy Ryce Law, named after the boy was abducted, raped and killed near his Miami-area home.
The law requires the state to review all sex offenders prior to their release from prison. If the state determines that the sex offender still poses a danger, a civil hearing will take place in which the prisoner can be civilly committed, essentially keeping inmates behind bars long after their time served for their crime has ended.
“It’s on the release point they say, 'Uh, oh. Can we let this guy out? Is he going to be dangerous?'” said 9th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Robert Wesley. "Criminal law says you can’t be punished for the same crime twice, so we put a new suit of clothes on it and call it civil and say we’re trying to help a person get better.”
The program is designed to keep the worst of the worst behind bars, but testimony before state leaders in Tallahassee reveals more than 500 sex offenders have been reviewed as part of the Jimmy Ryce Law, cleared and subsequently reoffended.
Eyewitness News reviewed more than 5,000 sex offender cases in the central Florida area, discovering dozens of cases where the offender was reviewed by the state, released and reoffended.
Florida’s Calhoun Correctional Institution sits on the outskirts of the Apalachicola National Forest just west of Tallahassee. Home to approximately 1,300 inmates, Calhoun is a medium-security facility. It is also where former Orlando resident Albert Nichols will spend the rest of his life.
In 1994, Nichols was accused of molesting several children near his home in West Orlando. Of the charges Nichols faced, some were dropped, and others he was acquitted on, but two stuck and Nichols was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to community supervision, not prison time.
For years, Nichols remained a free man, that is until May 2000 when his probation officer reported that Nichols had “lured children to his home” and was “paying little girls to bring him cups of coffee."
Following this report, Nichols was sent to prison. After serving a little more than a year in prison, Nichols was slated for release. However, as a registered sex offender, Nichols was evaluated by the Florida Department of Children and Families and was cleared.
Five years would pass before Nichols would strike again, this time in Port Charlotte where he befriended a mother to gain access to her young daughters.
An investigation by the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office revealed that Nichols assaulted the girls repeatedly in the summer of 2006, taking advantage of the girls while their mother was away.
When investigators confronted Nichols with the allegations, he fled the area, running from law enforcement for nine months until he was ultimately arrested near Jacksonville.
Following his extradition back to Charlotte County, Nichols was convicted of sexual battery and lewd and lascivious molestation and was sentenced to life.
“When I look at his file, you know what I see? I see a sex offender, a criminal, and I see someone who is now incarcerated for the rest of his life,” said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner.
Amid state scrutiny, DCF is currently reexamining the entire program calling for broader psychological exams and greater attention paid to past crimes.
“The most challenging component of this is predicting whether or not somebody is going to commit a crime,” said Hoeppner."We can’t punish people for things that haven’t happened.”