In 2019, I was falsely accused of a petty theft in Broward County, Florida, despite living over 1,100 miles from the alleged offense and having no transportation.
I was arrested by my local police agency and spent 24 days incarcerated, including the six days it took to transport me from Ohio to Florida so I could bond out and mount my defense. But Florida delayed my release in order to force me to register on the public sex offense registry.
I have never lived in the state of Florida, nor have I ever desired to reside in that state. I briefly traveled to Florida in the past to engage in a peaceful demonstration against the primary proponent of residency restriction laws that harm returning citizens and drive up homeless rates in South Florida.
I had also traveled briefly to the state to hand out Christmas care packages to those made homeless by the Miami municipal residency restriction ordinance named after the same proponent I had protested the year before. Given a choice, I would not have spent even a single day in Florida.
But now, due to this false accusation that was recently dropped (through a nolle prosequi), I am currently listed on the state’s public sex offense registry for life.
I decided to look a little deeper.
Who’s on Florida’s Registry?
According to a report by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the public sex offense registry maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) included 78,357 Registered Persons as of September 2021.
However, only 38.5 percent of those listed on the FDLE database reside in Florida communities. The majority (60.2 percent) of Registrants are either confined (18,507) or live outside of the state (28,646).
About 6 percent of Florida’s Registrants are homeless, while another 1.3 percent are listed as “absconded” or “missing.”
OPPAGA also notes that “the registry also includes 1,358 deceased persons: 1,162 sex offenders and 196 sexual predators, whose names remain on the registry for one year following their death so that victims can see that they have been reported as deceased.”
The Orlando Weekly noted this particular issue back in 2005, adding this practice “means two things: The FDLE’s website is exaggerating the threat posed by sex offenders, and you aren’t getting a clear picture of who is and isn’t in your neighborhood.”
‘More Sex Offenders Equals More Money’
So why does Florida feel the need to include dead or incarcerated individuals, and people not even residing in the state of Florida, in the FDLE database?
Here’s the Orlando Weekly’s answer, published in 2005: “Besides portraying Florida as crawling with offenders, the overall figure can help determine how much money Florida gets to comply with registry laws…. More sex offenders equals more money.”
Has anything changed since then? My experience suggests nothing has. But there’s more to ponder about the nature of federal grants to communities that are aimed at reinforcing sex offender laws.
A rarely discussed provision of the federal Adam Walsh Act (AWA) penalizes states that refuse to adopt the controversial Sex Offender and Community Notification (SORNA) guidelines. These states lose 10 percent of their Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) or “Byrne” Grants.
(In reality, that number is closer to 6 percent, since only the funds that goes to the state, not local, law enforcement agencies are penalized. Under JAG/Byrne, 60 percent goes to state police and 40 percent goes to local agencies.)
Currently, only 18 states are considered “substantially compliant” with SORNA guidelines. However, states can file extensions to use the otherwise lost Byrne/JAG funds towards SORNA implementation.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, 34 states and U.S. territories were not compliant with SORNA’s requirements. These jurisdictions received a combined $5,265,649 reduction to their FY 2020 JAG awards. They were allowed to apply to reallocate the 10 percent penalty to promote SORNA implementation.
Eleven SORNA-noncompliant states did not apply to reallocate the penalty (up from six states in FY 2016). Per the Act, the $2,014,088 withheld from these jurisdictions will be reallocated to SORNA-compliant states as part of the FY 2021 JAG award, the BJS said.
This penalty is divided among the 18 states and four U.S. Territories currently considered “substantially compliant” with SORNA, with larger states receiving more money. Out of the $1,972,552 in penalty funds reallocated to SORNA-compliant states for the FY 2020, Florida collected an additional $378,143.
The next largest states, Michigan and Ohio, received only around $180,000. The Northern Mariana Islands, the territory with the smallest population of Registrants, received only $1,627.
This scheme is far more lucrative than becoming compliant with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Florida received only $7,718 in bonus funds for compliance with PREA.
Overall, Florida received around $14.5 million in JAG/Byrne funds for FY 2020.
Florida has understood for years that Predator Panic is a lucrative business, and the Florida legislature is quite adept at propagating fear and loathing among the public.
Senator and Victim Advocate
No one epitomizes this business strategy better than the current Florida Senate Democrat Leader Lauren Book.
Sen. Book is a victim advocate and daughter of Ronald Lee Book, a powerful and controversial lobbyist who was convicted of illegal campaign contributions in 1995, and recently pleaded no contest to “reckless driving” after nearly killing a man in a car crash in 2019.
Together, the Books have played a central role in the ongoing crisis of homeless Registered Persons in Miami-Dade County. Ron Book is also chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. Lauren Book ran unopposed in 2016 and 2018 in Broward County.
In 2017, Sen. Book voted to send her own victim advocacy charity $1.5 million while acting as chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Despite her status as Senate Democratic leader, she collects millions from Republican donors.
There are personal and financial motives for making Florida into what Former Senate President Don Gaetz, father of embattled Congressman Matt Gaetz, described as “scorched earth for sex offenders.”
Lawmakers have directly profited from the sex offense registry, which is one more reason to abolish this registry scheme altogether.
Derek W. Logue is a Nebraska registrant and activist for the rights of returning citizens, and founder of the sex offense education and reform website OnceFallen.com.