Florida Enacts Laws to Aid Human Trafficking Victims

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law two bills aimed at helping victims of sex trafficking clear their names for crimes like drug use or prostitution that are tied to their forced servitude.
May 31, 2013

By Josh Boatwright

Those caught up in sex trafficking now have a path to be recognized as victims in the eyes of the law rather than criminals.

Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott signed two bills aimed at helping victims clear their names after arrests for crimes such as prostitution or drug use tied to their forced servitude.

Scott called trafficking a "modern-day slavery" that's becoming pervasive across the state at an event at the Drug Free America Foundation offices in St. Petersburg.

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The problem has been highlighted in Pinellas County this past month as investigators made arrests in several sex trafficking cases.

State Rep. Ross Spano, a sponsor of the legislation, said children and teens forced into prostitution often end up with a criminal record that bars them from jobs or even volunteering with organizations that help other victims.

"That follows them around their entire life," he said. "What could be more horrible than that, to be victimized once but to have that victimization continue to follow you the rest of your life?"

The new law allows victims to petition the court to have their criminal history vacated, or completely erased, if they can show they were forced into sex trafficking.

A second bill makes victims' records confidential and exempt from public records.

Many victims arrested on prostitution charges may fall back into trafficking because their criminal history prevents them from being employed, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The sheriff's office plans to add more resources in the near future to investigate trafficking cases, which have been steadily growing.

This month, authorities uncovered a human trafficking ring in the Tampa Bay area involving 16 women who were hooked on drugs, beaten and forced into prostitution.

In a separate case, Pinellas deputies arrested three St. Petersburg residents on charges of arranging sexual encounters with underage girls up and down the 34th Street corridor.

"It's very concerning to me especially with these young girls -- 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds who are being forced into prostitution," said Gualtieri, who is part of the multiagency Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.

The governor also highlighted legislation in recent years that's created harsher penalties for traffickers and the state's financial support of several safe houses for victims. Several groups have formed across the Tampa Bay area and in neighboring Manatee County to create homes for local victims.

Laurie Swink, the founder of Selah Freedom in Manatee, says the area is known for its strip clubs and large convention centers, making it a hub for people seeking sex.

She works with survivors, some of whom have hundreds of arrests on their records and little opportunity.

The new law will help some of them, although many of them have been moved from state to state and their criminal history outside of Florida will remain unless similar legislation is passed nationwide, she said.

"This is a beginning. It's a starting point," she said.

One trafficking survivor, Telisia Espinosa, said she hasn't been able to officially volunteer with her church in Tampa to help others because of her criminal record.

"I can't even volunteer right now with them," she said. "That's an injustice because to really tell you the truth they need survivors to be able to help these victims."

(c)2013 Tampa Tribune

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