The insidious crime of human trafficking, long out of the public consciousness, has become the focus of new laws and increased law enforcement efforts. With Florida ranking as one of the nation's worst offenders as the No. 3 destination for traffickers, new developments lend hope that the nation and state will come to grips with this modern-day slavery.
The confluence of events in Manatee County are promising, too, with the formation of a task force from various agencies and greater public awareness through community activism and publicity campaigns.
Citizen vigilance and reporting of suspicious incidents is an essential aspect to rescuing victims.
Human trafficking -- now worth an estimated $35 billion in this country alone -- involves the commercial exploitation of people into forced prostitution, involuntary labor and debt bondage through force, coercion and threats.
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Second only to drug trafficking in criminal activity, human trafficking involves a variety of victims -- including undocumented immigrants smuggled into the county on false promises only to become enslaved; runaways seeking acceptance but becoming ensnared in prostitution, and even children groomed into submission by predators.
Only weeks ago, law enforcement officers crippled a human trafficking and prostitution ring based in Clearwater.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi then announced a new state effort to combat the crime -- interactive video training program to educate law enforcement personnel about how to spot cases.
A new focus on victims
With victims intimidated by their captors and coerced into capitulation, the crime is difficult to detect. Victims also fear prosecution or deportation, though new laws assuage that apprehension. Undocumented victims are eligible for special visas depending on circumstances.
A new state law went into effect in July 2012 that expanded the definition of human trafficking to mirror federal law. After incarceration, sex traffickers could be subjected to lifelong monitoring and forfeiture of property connected to their crimes.
A key piece of legislation, the Safe Harbor Act, followed in January 2013. This game-changing law treats young victims of human trafficking as crime victims -- their true plight. Instead of juvenile detention, children who have been sexually exploited can be placed in safe houses and then secure shelters that offer counseling, life skills classes and other services.
Last month, Gov. Rick Scott signed two other laws that assist victims. One allows them to petition the court to clear their criminal record of arrests and convictions if they committed crimes under duress.
The second dovetails with the first by keeping such an expunged criminal history private, exempt from public records requirements.
These sensible laws free victims of a lifelong drag on their lives.
A rise in local efforts
At Thursday's Manatee Tiger Bay monthly forum, two representatives of Selah Freedom shed light on the problem in Manatee County -- likely shocking many. Elizabeth Melendez Fisher, president of the Sarasota-based organization, which is dedicated to fighting sex trafficking and exploitation, noted that prostitution is a problem in Manatee County.
Young girls, mostly white, are sold up to 15 times a day by their pimps, according to Kindsey Neeson, Selah Freedom's director of operations and strategic development. "Prostitution is the No. 1 way we see (human trafficking) happening on the streets of Bradenton," Neesen stated.
That's a call to arms, one the Bradenton Police Department is embracing by chasing down pimps. Another Tiger Bay panelist, BPD Sgt. William Knight, described the impact of the sea changes in Florida: "The prostitute usually has been the one held accountable. These new laws are changing so that the right person is held accountable."
This month, law enforcement, government agencies and community organizations in Manatee and Sarasota counties agreed to form a human trafficking task force to combat this scourge.
The public plays a pivotal role in this endeavor, too. In announcing new law enforcement training on spotting the crime, Bondi noted that people are more likely to encounter victims at convenience stores when traffickers fuel up their vehicles as we all must do at some point. Spotting distressed youth inside the car could be a sign.
Citizen tips to law enforcement are vital. Learning the many indicators of the crime would be helpful. Those can be found at www.humantrafficking.org.
View the state's new "Introduction to Human Trafficking" training at www.fdle.state.fl.us/Content/BPDtraining/HumanTrafficking/story.html