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Will Public Shaming, Education And Increased Penalties Curb Sex Trafficking? Lawmakers Hope So.

Florida lawmakers say they want to crack down on human trafficking—specifically sex trafficking. And the legislature is considering increasing penalties on those who solicit for prostitution. Bills on the move would tackle the issue simultaneously.

One plan requires hotels and massage parlor employees to get training on how to spot human trafficking and post signs about it in their businesses. The measures also require a “John’s Registry” where people convicted of buying sex would be listed. The idea is to curb the supply by cracking down on the demand. 

“If I could snap my fingers, what would you want in the state of Florida to minimize or eradicate human trafficking?” Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton, recently asked Pasco County Sheriffs Corporal Alan Wilkett during a recent hearing.

"Going after the buyers," Wilkett said. 

That registry has concerned some victim advocates, who worry it could backfire. In addition to johns, people who recruit others and are found guilty of soliciting prostitution would be included on the registry, even if they’re victims themselves. 

“There are many, many people who will not identify as victims of human trafficking who are going to be criminalized by this law," the Sex Worker Outreach Project's Christine Hanavan previously argued.

The measures began as attempts to curb sex trafficking in hotels. They were later changed to include massage parlors in the wake of the high profile arrest of Patriots football team owner Robert Craft for solicitation of prostitution. He and dozens of others were charged. More than 100 other people are facing charges in a similar but unrelated case. Those stings are adding urgency to measures by Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell and Rep. Toby Overdorf.

“This recently came to the front page in my hometown where hundreds of men were arrested for solicitation in massage parlors. These parlors were found to have multiple women, even foreign nationals, smuggled into our country for one thing: sex slavery," Overdorf told the House's Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday. 

Those pair of bills create a minimum jail sentence of 30 days for people convicted of soliciting a human trafficking victim and there is no requirement that the offender knew the person solicited was a victim. Lynn Barletta with the advocacy group Catch the Wave of Hope says the increased penalties are meant to send a message to users that, "solicitation of any child or any adult is a horrendous crime."

She says, "the majority of victims are there through force, fraud and coercion.”   

Republican Rep. David Santiago believes the penalties should be higher.

“I think Florida should send an even stronger message than 30 days. I would support a minimum of 120 days in jail for this. [It would] send a clear message to everyone—send a message to the world," he said.

The efforts come as Florida continues to be ranked among the top states for human and sexual trafficking. While there are no known figures as to the number of victims, the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s most recent data notes Florida ranks third in the nation for reported cases of human trafficking. During the first six months of 2018, the Hotline received 367 human trafficking cases from Florida.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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