MANATEE -- Gov. Rick Scott signed into law two bills last week to aid the victims of human trafficking as agencies in Manatee and Sarasota unite to combat the epidemic at a local level.
Florida is ranked the No. 3 destination in the nation for human trafficking.
Human trafficking is difficult to detect and prosecute because victims live in fear of their captors and of facing prosecution themselves.
"These offenders need to be brought to justice," Manatee County Sheriff's Office Capt. Todd Shear said. "This is certainly going to help us."
The new laws -- House Bill 1325 and HB 1327 -- will allow for identified victims of human trafficking to petition to have their records expunged. The laws also increase the age required to testify in these cases. Currently victims 11 years old and up are required to testify in court. The new law increases the age to 16.
"This is a very horrific crime and these cases are very difficult to prosecute," Shear said. "It can be very intimidating for a young person to face the offender that has been in control over them for so long."
Both bills passed the House and Senate unanimously.
The changes will be valuable to law enforcement and prosecutors as they deal with reluctant victims.
"It was very difficult to move forward with victim testimony," Shear said. "Victims of human trafficking just want to move on with their lives, not keep reliving it."
In July 2012, the Florida definition of human trafficking was changed to mirror federal law.
"Now that the definition is broader it will increase the potential of cases," Shear said.
With a large migrant population in Manatee County, many fear the potential for victims. The task force is beginning with an education push to agencies and the community.
"If you are educated in the area of human trafficking, you would recognize it easier," Shear said. "On the surface it is not going to scream human trafficking. You will see people getting paid, the residence will look normal."
Service agencies and nonprofits will also be an intricate part of the human trafficking task force.
Healthy Start program director Manatee Luz Corcuera is excited these bills have passed and about the effect it will have in battling this epidemic.
"I am so glad that this issue is being acknowledged and getting the community to realize we do have a problem in Florida," Corcuera said. "By protecting the victim we are sending a clear message that there is a community that cares about them and there are services available."
Many people don't realize Florida is ranked third in destinations for this to occur, according to Corcuera. Education is key, she stressed, particularly among law enforcers who must identify victims of human trafficking.
"Victims have to be certified, then they are eligible for different services," Corcuera said.
An identified victim is eligible, for example, for a T non-immigrant status visa for victims of human trafficking. It permits them to stay in the country for the duration of the case.
Attorneys can then help the victim by finding other factors to qualify them for a U Visa, which is for victims of violence. With this visa they are then eligible to apply for residency.
Corcuera also agrees in the importance of making it easier for victims to come forward. She has assisted victims of human trafficking in Manatee.
"I have listened to their stories," Corcuera said.
Understanding the culture and where they come from is key in helping these victims.
"Two-thirds of the world lives in extreme poverty," Corcuera said. "So when they are promised a job in the land of opportunity, which is America, they are going to believe it."
Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.