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The Pervert Next Door

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"I know that there is at least one ten-year-old kid who's not a victim because of this law," Burt says. "That's why I say my bill is working just fine, thank you very much."

Burt cites a 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice, which he says concluded that few sex offenders are ever harassed by the public. "The instances of people burning down their houses or assaulting them were minimal," he notes. "On the other hand, there is good evidence, evidence that has been clinically and practically demonstrated, that sexual offenders repeat their crimes," Burt says.

Not true, contends Broward psychologist Dr. John Morin, who leads therapy groups for convicted sex abusers, including several of South Florida's registered sexual predators. "The best definition I've seen of a predator is someone who has multiple convictions for sexual crimes against strangers, or against acquaintances made for the purpose of creating an opportunity for sexual abuse," Morin says.

The problem, he contends, is that many of Florida's legally defined sexual predators don't fit that definition -- or the popular image conjured up by the term predator.

Senator Burt and other political supporters of the new law agree it was partly inspired by the horrific case of Howard Stephen Ault, a Fort Lauderdale man who stands accused of molesting and strangling to death two girls, then hiding their bodies in his home.

But none of Pompano Beach's sexual predators quite resembles Ault. Like each of his four fellow predators in Pompano Beach, Garcia was convicted of sexual battery on a family member. And unlike Ault, none of the men has a prior conviction or arrest for sexual assault or battery.

"Typically a true predator is a pedophile, someone who's fundamental sexual orientation is toward children," Morin says. He contrasts genuine pedophiles with "incestuous offenders." The latter, he notes, may exhibit normal sexual responses and behavior most of the time, but they tend to regress sexually when they're feeling out of control or highly stressed.

"The distinction has been completely lost in the media and consequently in the public mind," says Morin. "The fact is, the rate of recidivism is lower for sex offenses than for most other crimes. It's about 13 to 13.5 percent, according to two recent studies."

For true sexual predators, Morin advocates civil commitment -- a legal procedure by which an uncontrollable pedophile can be held in confinement indefinitely, even after completing a prison sentence. The procedure already exists in seven states and was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida legislature is likely to consider it next year.

As for incestuous offenders -- perhaps the majority of Florida's designated sexual predators -- Morin warns that the new law could have unexpected and undesirable effects, including the unintentional identification of victims.

"In a sense you're victimizing the family all over again," says Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Ott Cefkin, discussing his department's low-key approach to publicizing sexual predators. "If it's a father-daughter situation, you're not only publicizing the father's identity but also the daughter's, indirectly. It's a very delicate situation."

Another danger is re-creating the same conditions that Morin believes cause most incestuous sexual abuse in the first place.

"The danger arises when you put pressure on these people -- and that's precisely what this law is doing," says another local psychologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It could cause one of these guys to completely snap. If they lose their job or their family, what do you think they're going to do? You've got a guy with nothing to lose. Is that making things safer for the community?"

(Like Morin, the psychologist quoted above treats sexual predators and convicted sex offenders. He says he requested anonymity because he has twice had landlord problems in the past due to the nature of his clientele.)

Morin agrees: "There are people out there who will take any excuse to harass and persecute people. In recent weeks I've had two guys lose their apartments, and one of those lost his job, too."

Todd DeAngelis, a spokesman for Hollywood's police department, declines to say what he thinks of the public notification requirement contained in the new law. Certainly it's a lot of extra work for police, he notes.

Hollywood's finest recently made personal visits to every school in the city, handed out fliers, ran paid advertisements in the Miami Herald, and issued press releases to local newspapers and TV stations. The result: Neighbors picketed the city's only sexual predator, and the man moved away.

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Sean Rowe

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