Senate committee approves steep penalties for human traffickers, pimps
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'We’re working to attack the pimps, not the Johns or the prostitutes.'

Legislation meant to strengthen state laws against human trafficking is headed to its last committee after receiving some constructive criticism.

The bill (SB 760), which would make three significant changes to Florida’s laws concerning prostitution, cleared the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee with unanimous approval Thursday.

But it still needs fine-tuning, according to its sponsor, Democratic Delray Beach Sen. Lori Berman, who agreed to work with Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout on implementing fixes.

“We do need to make sure to target the bill appropriately,” Berman said.

Berman’s legislation would expand the state’s definition of “coercion” to include the use of alcohol and withholding of a person’s earned income. To target “pimp-like behavior,” she said, the bill would create a new law under the state’s prostitution statute banning a person from engaging in the procurement of prostitution with the intent to “benefit financially or receive anything of value.”

The measure also would increase penalties for two existing crimes — owning or operating a location used for prostitution or transporting a person to such a place — from second-degree misdemeanors punishable by a maximum 60 days in jail to second-degree felonies punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Berman said her office drafted the bill with input from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who told her prosecutors have trouble seeking “adequate and consequential charges” for criminals who engage in human trafficking.

“We’re working to attack the pimps, not the johns (customers of sex workers) or the prostitutes,” she said.

But the bill in its current form could unintentionally target the wrong people, according to Democratic Miami Sen. Jason Pizzo.

He expressed concern over the bill’s wording, which specifies that a person only needs to transport someone to a structure or building for the purpose of prostitution to be subject to a second-degree felony.

In the “sliver of time” he spent as a prosecutor, Pizzo said, he encountered cases in which sex workers had friends, boyfriends or family members chaperone them.

“(This was) somebody who was concerned about their safety, not actually pimping them out,” he said, adding the bill would “make that person who’s driving the sex worker subject to 15 years in state prison.”

That could cause a dangerous ripple effect impacting those helping sex workers and the sex workers themselves, he continued.

“The street finds out real quick what we do up here,” he said. “I don’t want someone to feel like they’re risking that and not do it, and then the woman goes alone and then something (bad) does happen.”

Haughwout interpreted Berman’s bill as potentially targeting johns, whose action of picking up and driving a prostitute a short distance to receive sex services could be charged with a second-degree felony.

It could also make prostitutes an aider or abettor to the crime, she said.

“Sen. Berman has very good intentions with this bill, and (I) look forward to working on clarifying the language of it so that we’re sure we’re targeting the social ill that we’re intending to target,” Haughwout said.

Berman appeared receptive to the unexpected criticism.

“I’m glad these issues were raised today, and this was the first time I heard about them,” she said. “We do need to make sure to target the bill appropriately, because it really is to target the people who were engaged in human trafficking and prostitution, and not just the … actual john and the victim, or the prostitute.”

Florida ranks third nationwide in human trafficking, with nearly 5,400 recorded cases as of Dec. 31, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

More than 800,000 victims of human trafficking are enslaved each year, according to the nonprofit group Human Rights First. The group estimates the industry generates some $150 billion yearly — nearly two-thirds of which comes from sexual exploitation.

“Human trafficking is the second-largest illicit industry and the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise … and tragically, the public is often unaware of its existence, allowing it to thrive and creep into our communities,” said Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, a member of the 15-member Statewide Council on Human Trafficking. She made those comments at a consortium of Florida industry leaders who met in December to discuss the issue and other aspects of worldwide illegal trade.

SB 760 will next go before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Its analogue in the House (HB 521), filed by Democratic Sen. Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton, still awaits a hearing before the first of three committees to which it was assigned Nov. 19.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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