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Letter of the Day: More needs to be done for victims of human trafficking

Published: July 27, 2014

Human Trafficking is a global epidemic. The State Department and the Florida Legislature have said that human trafficking is modern-day slavery. Every state in the United States has reported cases of human trafficking.

Florida is ranked third in the nation for the highest rate of human trafficking. The Tampa Bay area is flooded with modern-day slavery. Slaves look just like me and you. Many are U.S. citizens. They can be of any religion, racial or ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation.

Adults and children are victims of human trafficking in Florida. The average age of a boy entering sex trafficking in the United States is 11. For girls, the average age is 12. Think of the lost potential. If they are able to escape or be rescued, how long will it take for them to successfully reintegrate into society? What sorts of services would they need?

Awareness that the problem exists is the first challenge. Once more people know about it, they can help educate others to help prevent trafficking by donating time and resources to assist survivors and lobby the Legislature for change.

Human trafficking leaves its mark on victims. Many of the individuals in Florida are forced to work as prostitutes. Prostitutes are regularly branded (tattooed by their pimps) to denote the pimp’s ownership. Can you imagine how hard it might be to find a job after having survived the horrors of being trafficked, with a tattoo on your neck that says “Property of … ” or a tattoo across your knuckles that says “SLUT”? What a graphic and traumatic daily reminder.

A new law in Florida states that permanently branding a victim of human trafficking, or directing an individual to be branded, is a second-degree felony. This is great progress and might perhaps be a deterrent to branding, but only if publicized enough. The bigger question is how to get the tattoos removed from the victims who are already branded. A new amendment to an existing law allows victims to be eligible for crime victim compensation awards under certain circumstances. Those circumstances are fairly specific, though, including that the crime must be reported no more than 72 hours after its occurrence (absent special circumstances) or a damages award is precluded.

Also, most victims of sex trafficking are arrested for prostitution — many several times. Pursuant to Florida law, if a person is convicted of prostitution three or more times, they are guilty of a felony in the third degree. Assuming that the victim of trafficking escapes slavery, they are still branded a felon. Felons are deprived of countless rights.

It is ridiculous to continue to punish a victim for crimes they did not willingly commit. The good news is that there was a new amendment to an existing law that allows for the expunction of a criminal history for an offense committed while the person was a victim of human trafficking. The bad news is that the victim of trafficking has to petition the court to achieve this. How many know about this?

I applaud the Florida Legislature for its progress in passing legislation that is both punitive for traffickers and protective of victims, but more must be done.

Stevie Swanson


The writer is a professor who teaches “Slavery & Human Trafficking” at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Tampa Bay Campus, in Riverview.