Two bills offer strong tools in fight against human trafficking

The public and private landscape in the war against human trafficking continues to gain momentum.

Two outstanding pieces of legislation addressing human trafficking sit on Gov. Rick Scott's desk, awaiting his decision whether to sign them into law.

One spotlights public awareness and the other imposes tougher penalties on people who solicit prostitutes. Combined, the two bills give the public and law enforcement strong tools to combat this scourge.

On another front, Attorney General Pam Bondi has been and continues to be committed to establishing Florida as a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking. Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of phone calls to the National Human Trafficking Awareness Center hotline.

As Bondi stated several months ago ahead of the Legislature's regular session, "Floridians can help battle human trafficking in our state by educating themselves about the signs of sex and labor trafficking and how to report suspected cases."

That will be greatly enhanced and easier thanks to the bill that requires public-awareness signs be placed at rest areas, turnpike service plazas, some emergency rooms, weigh stations, strip clubs and bodyworks businesses not operated by health-care professionals.

The signs will outline how to identify a human trafficking victim along with the phone number of the awareness center. Signs could also be placed in restroom stalls, allowing victims to self-identify during a rare moment of privacy.

Such simple educational signage can be life-changing, as Brook Bello, founder and CEO of More Too Life, a Sarasota-based organization that helps human trafficking victims, told Herald reporter Kate Irby last week.

A victim of human trafficking years ago, Bello fell into a common emotional trap: "If I would've seen a sign like this, I would've known it wasn't my fault. I really thought it was my fault, because I ran away."

Predators seek out runaways as easy prey, grooming them with promises before becoming abusive and controlling.

The second bill attacks the root cause of much human trafficking. Runaways and other vulnerable women and men are forced into prostitution, but without the demand by so-called johns, the pimps would be out of business.

To that end, the bill targets first-time offenders with a $5,000 fine, 100 hours of community service and completion of an educational program on the harmful impacts of prostitution and human trafficking. That should serve as a stronger deterrent than current penalties.

Florida became enlightened on the sexual exploitation of minors with passage of the Safe Harbor Act in 2012, this coming after an unprecedented surge in statewide figures for the human trafficking of children.

The act steers victims into treatment instead of incarceration. Law enforcement authorities now divert victims to the Department of Children and Families for counseling and therapy.

Sarasota County employs a similar tool for adults. The Turn Your Life Around program operates like a drug court but focuses on human trafficking and prostitution, allowing victims to avoid prosecution by seeking assistance and treatment. Successful completion of the program ends any prosecution.

Manatee County should adopt a similar program. Diversion programs have proven value at rehabilitation.

Manatee County is blessed with a nonprofit that offers such rehabilitation. Besides counseling, mentoring and other services to victims, Selah Freedom also offers a residential program at a safe house. Selah developed the TYLA program, and Manatee should seek out the nonprofit's services.

The governor has the opportunity to strengthen the state's fight against human trafficking. He should take it with two signatures.