"Scorched Earth" sex offender laws burn first jail inmate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Thatcher Gates is no stranger to the inside of a Duval County courtroom. The 37-year-old violent sexual predator has faced charges over the past decade of forcible sodomy, false imprisonment, robbery, rape, and impersonating a police officer.

But when Gates showed up to court last Thursday, he was the very first offender ensnared by tough new laws for sex offenders. And he may never walk free again.

The Florida legislature began a massive overhaul of state sex predator laws this year, prompted in part by the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Periwinkle from a Jacksonville Wal Mart, and in part by a damning series by the Sun-Sentinel that showed hundreds of new crimes committed by previously convicted sex offenders.

Lawmakers said they wanted to make Florida "Scorched Earth" for offenders, and the changes they approved greatly expanded the authority of law enforcement under the state's Jimmy Ryce Act. That law, named for a South Florida boy raped and murdered in 1995, allows the state to permanently detain inmates whom officials believe might re-offend at some time in the future. Because the law anticipates future behavior, rather than past crimes, it is opposed by civil libertarians, but has thus far survived legal challenges.

The expansion of the law this legislative session includes a provision that permits the State Attorney's Office to "red-flag" inmates being held at the Duval County jail, and recommend them for review for possible permanent confinement. Previously, only the state Department of Children and Families could order such a review, and only when an inmate was being released from Department of Corrections custody.

Now, even someone picked up on a misdemeanor charge – like petit theft -- is subject to review. That's exactly what happened to Gates. Picked up in August on a misdemeanor charge of stealing from a Family Dollar store, Gates may never again be a free man. That's because the State Attorney's Office decided his history of offenses made him too dangerous to ever release.

Citing "a mental abnormality and/or personality disorder which makes him likely to engage in acts of sexual violence," the office asked that Gates be evaluated by a team of psychologists. According to a risk matrix obtained by First Coast News, based on his prior sexual offenses and the nature of his crimes -- including kidnapping multiple victims, and raping an 8-year-old boy -- Gates scored an 8. Anything over 6 is considered high risk. Based on that evaluation, and interviews with Gates, a team of psychologists for the state determined "Mr. Gates meets the criteria to be considered a sexually violent predator" who qualified for involuntary civil commitment.

Since the new laws went into effect July 1, State Attorney spokesperson Jackelyn Barnard says the office has reviewed 253 jail inmates for possible indefinite commitment. Gates is the only inmate they have asked to detain.

Gates fate ultimately will rest with a jury. His next scheduled hearing is Jan. 15.


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