Florida has the third highest number of sex trafficking cases in the U.S., says the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, but few offenders go to prison, reports the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting for the Miami Herald. For more than 15 years, a coalition of victim advocates, sociologists and prosecutors has waged a nationwide campaign to change the way the criminal justice system handles prostitution. Reformers have argued that prostitutes are victims, not criminals, and more effort should be made to go after human traffickers: the pimps. Instead of incarceration, services such as counseling should be made available to the victims, these advocates say. Florida revised its laws in 2012 and 2013 to increase penalties for sex trafficking, funnel more resources into treatment for child victims, and make it easier to convict traffickers of juveniles. Last year, state legislators approved the creation of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.
“It is the intent of the Legislature that the perpetrators of human trafficking be penalized for their illegal conduct and that the victims of trafficking be protected and assisted by this state and its agencies,” a statute passed in 2012 stated. Despite this new focus, efforts to investigate and prosecute sex traffickers have yielded few results. By mid-October, only 24 men and women were in Florida prisons convicted of sex trafficking. Meanwhile, hundreds of prostitutes are still being arrested annually. Last year alone, police filed nearly two dozen cases against child prostitutes, says the state Department of Juvenile Justice. “Law enforcement is not necessarily on the same page,” said Elizabeth Fisher of Selah Freedom, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking and conducts workshops at police departments. “They're just learning. Literally just a year and a half ago, law enforcement was saying this isn't happening here. Undoing that myth about prostitution is hard and takes time.”