Florida legislators have passed a raft of laws intended to reduce human trafficking. Latest measure includes creating state registry of those arrested for soliciting prostitution, an attempt to reduce demand.
LAKELAND — Almost every year since 2012, the Florida Legislature has adopted at least one measure intended to curtail human trafficking.
In this year's session, both houses overwhelmingly passed a bill that directs the state to keep a public registry of everyone arrested for soliciting prostitution and creates an organization to support an existing state anti-trafficking council.
The law, championed by state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, took effect July 1 after being signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Though the bill passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate, the section calling for a public database of solicitation arrests has generated some criticism. The original version of the House bill, introduced by state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, contained the registry language, but that section was removed at one point before being reinserted before the final vote.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, cited that change as the reason she cast the only vote against the measure, which passed 108-1. Eskamani said she supported the overall bill but was concerned that sex workers could wind up on the registry.
“At the end of the day, there is a difference between those who engage in sex work and those who are trafficked, and there's just no evidence to dictate that a public registry that someone could be placed on incorrectly and have their life be ruined is going to prevent human trafficking,” Eskamani said.
Claire VanSusteren, a spokeswoman for Book, said there is no chance of a human trafficking victim being wrongly included in the database.
The bill's supporters say that fear of being publicly shamed will deter potential clients of prostitutes, reducing the demand for paid sex and thereby suppressing human trafficking.
“The goal of the public database provision is to curb the demand for paid sex,” VanSusteren said. “Human trafficking is a horrific problem for the state of Florida, and this has shown to be a possible solution based on psychological research, which found that a registry would be an effective deterrent for those seeking to purchase sex.”
Names will be removed from the public database after five years if the person has no further arrests for soliciting. Names also will be deleted if a conviction is overturned or a judge orders the arrest record expunged.
Alex Andrews of the Sex Workers Outreach Project said evidence from other states shows that strategies aimed at curbing the demand for sexual services are not effective. She said that if demand declines, sex workers will put themselves at greater risk.
“They become more desperate and engage in riskier behavior to meet their needs, so it creates more harm than it does good,” she said. “It always terrifies clients, so a lot of the time when a sex worker has to make that split-second choice to get in the car or take that call, she can't tell if she's talking to a guy who's scared or a guy who's scary.”
Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University in Miami Shores, also questioned the approach in an April article in the Huffington Post.
“There is very little, if any, research to support the idea that public registries and public shaming deter any sort of behavior,” Levenson said. “The problem of human trafficking requires strategies much more complex than putting someone's name on a list.”
The bill has several other components. It created a direct-support organization for the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking headed by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. The new organization will have a board of directors with 13 members appointed by the attorney general, the president of the state Senate, speaker of the state House and the executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Moody's office did not make her available for an interview despite multiple requests.
The panel is instructed to collaborate with law enforcement agencies, cities and counties, and private-sector groups to battle human trafficking. One of its main purposes is to develop training material focused on disrupting trafficking that might arise around major events, such as the Super Bowl and Daytona International Speedway races.
The 35-page bill also tightened regulations over massage spas and created requirements for employees to undergo training on identifying human trafficking. And it directed certain employees of hotels to receive such training.
The measure also imposes new requirements on law officers to receive four hours of training in recognizing signs of human trafficking.
The Legislature first addressed human trafficking in 2012 with the passage of the Florida Safe Harbor Act. That measure recognized minors who engage in prostitution as sex trafficking victims and gave law enforcement agencies discretion to deliver them to a shelter rather than arresting them.
The Legislature expanded the provisions of the Safe Harbor Act in 2016, requiring the Department of Children and Families to develop a screening program for identifying sexually exploited children. The update also established standards that rescue homes must meet before receiving children.
In 2013, the Legislature passed a law giving human trafficking victims the right to petition courts to have arrest and conviction records erased if the offenses occurred during the course of their trafficking. The following year saw the establishment of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, a task force headed by the Attorney General's office.
A 2014 measure also ordered the creation of local task forces on human trafficking. And it directed the research arm of the Legislature to conduct an annual study on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the state.
One of three trafficking-related bills passed in 2015 required the posting of educational signs at a variety of locations, including welcome centers, rest areas, airports, rail stations, emergency rooms, strip clubs and massage spas. Another enhanced the criminal penalties for inducing, enticing or procuring another person for prostitution.
A year later, the Legislature passed a measure that protected those younger than 18 from being prosecuted for prostitution. It also established that branding, or putting a permanent mark on the skin of a person being trafficked, was a second-degree felony.
Lawmakers in 2017 passed a measure adding human trafficking to the list of crimes for which defendants may be held without bail before trial. The bill also revised requirements for licensing and certification in some medical areas to include a course on human trafficking.
It appears that 2018 was the only year since 2012 that lawmakers did not pass any legislation related to human trafficking.
At the national level, two Florida lawmakers — Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach — introduced a bill Sept. 19 that would provide training for students, teachers and other school personnel on the warning signs of human trafficking. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, whose district includes southern Polk County, is a co-sponsor.
The bill would authorize $75 million over five years for grants to be issued through the program within the Department of Health and Human Services. The grants would go to nonprofit organizations with records of creating educational material related to human trafficking.
Florida Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has co-sponsored or supported the bills related to trafficking passed in recent years. She said the Legislature's actions have made a difference.
“Obviously, if we're saving more lives and less people are becoming victims of it, that is success,” she said. “I think we have definitely heightened awareness of the situation. I think parents are more aware; students are more aware. We're doing everything we can, and law enforcement is doing everything they can, to come down hard when they find these rings and individuals.”
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.