Proposed sex trafficking legislation could harm victims, advocates warn

A flurry of bills filed in the Florida legislature aimed at combating sex trafficking and assisting victims are facing a backlash from advocates who say they were written hastily, without input and with language that could do more harm than good.

With the 2023 session looming, state legislators have filed at least 16 bills related to human trafficking. The bills address everything from limiting depositions of victimsto creating task forces on the foster care systemto establishing a victim trust fund.

But while the new bills indicate a surge of interest in combating trafficking, advocates have pointed to flaws in proposed language that could harm victims or make it more difficult to combat the problem.

The experts, mostly members of an informal working group on human trafficking, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that legislators are pitching legislation without consulting with them or victims, leading to well-intentioned misfires.

Earlier this month, Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, filed a bill intended to improve the process for trafficking survivors trying to have their records expunged.

Under Florida Statutes, victims can file a petition to have charges scrubbed from their record if they were related to their time being trafficked. The Sun Sentinel previously reported that the bill would increase privacy measures for victimshiding all records related to their expunctions from public view.

But provisions buried within the bill would amend the law so that only crimes “directly related to” a trafficking operation could be expunged. The current standard allows expungement of any crimes “committed or reported to have been committed as a part of” the trafficking operation.

It’s a three-word change that would raise the bar for victims of human trafficking when it comes to getting their names cleared, according to experts.

Marianne Thomas, a survivor and founder of anti-trafficking non-profit My Name, My Voice, said that it is difficult to prove exactly when someone was being trafficked and, therefore, demonstrate that the charge was ‘directly related to’ being trafficked.

“It’s not like I have a W-2 where I can show you how long I was trafficked,” she said. “And even though maybe I no longer am being trafficked, was my crime committed because of trafficking?”

Brent Woody, a Tarpon Springs attorney who helped write Florida’s trafficking expunction law, worries that some prosecutors would use the higher standard to oppose efforts by victims to clear their records.

“Lots of prosecutors, they’re on board, they’re victim-centered, they’re not going to care about that. But believe me, there’s some who will,” Woody said. “There’s some who will push back, and they’ll look at every possible thing they can figure out, ‘how can I object to this?'”

Woody was also concerned by a provision of the expunction bill that would increase penalties for survivors who provide false information — an issue that has never come up in the thousands of petitions he has filed over the years.

“We’ve had prosecutors push back on cases, but not suggest our client was lying on an affidavit,” he said. “Why increase that offense level for a problem we have never had? I have no idea where this is coming from. I’m baffled by that.”

Hawkins’ bill isn’t the only one that raised eyebrows for trafficking advocates. The experts flagged multiple other proposals that they fear were drafted without input from advocates or victims and missed the mark despite good intentions.

The proposals are all very early in the legislative process, and it is common for bills to be overhauled before they ever reach a vote in Tallahassee. Hawkins’ bill was referred to its first subcommittees Tuesday, where it can be amended or even scrapped.

While Woody said he believes that the expunction statute can be improved, he’d “rather live with what we’ve been living with for ten years,” unless the bill is amended.

Easy wins, or bad policy?

Tomas Lares, founder of the anti-trafficking group United Abolitionists, is concerned that political opportunism is driving the rush to file bills without talking to those in the know.

“I think that because of the amount of awareness, human trafficking is on a lot of people’s radars,” Lares said, adding that passing a trafficking bill this year could be a win for legislators. “Who’s going to be against [human trafficking legislation]except for the traffickers?”

But that win can come at the expense of good policy.

Lares is part of an informal working group of human trafficking experts. Several members of the group who spoke to the Sun Sentinel expressed concern that months of careful political work could be undone by the sudden onslaught of bills.

Lisa Haba, a trafficking attorney and member of the working group, worries that other proposals will substitute work that her group painstakingly drafted.

“Our working group subject matter experts spent months crafting language, methodology and a process that would effect real change, that would positively impact survivors in the state of Florida,” Haba said. “What will not effect change is a bill without the right background , understanding the status of what things are and how to change them. While we support the effort 100%, the language has to be effective.”

While members of the working group are worried about some bills currently on the table, each said they were hopeful that they could collaborate with legislators to create more comprehensive and effective laws.

“Everybody who has raised one of these bills has the best interests of our state at heart,” Haba said. “Ideally, we’ll all come together on the same bill and rally behind the same cause.”

Benjamin Rembaum, a legislative aide for Hawkins, the sponsor of the House expunction bill, said that the representative won’t be answering questions about the proposed legislation until it is placed on the agenda by the committee chair. Their office takes criticism of the bill “very seriously,” he said, and they are willing to work with lawyers who have raised concerns.

‘Toothless’ legislation

The bills flagged by trafficking advocates aren’t far off the mark, experts said, and could be corrected with just slight adjustments to the most concerning provisions.

For example, a bill filed by state senator Rosalind Osgood, D-Tamarac, would create a trust fund for human trafficking victims to help pay the costs of having their records cleared.

Woody is generally supportive of the idea, but said he was concerned about how expunction attorneys would be paid. Woody said that he would feel more comfortable with funding going directly to law firms so that there is never a financial transaction between the attorney and victim — and, therefore, no concern that the attorney would stop working on the case if the victim ran out of money.

“The thought of an attorney making money off of an expungement, off of a human trafficking victim, bothers me,” Woody said. “Just as a sort of moral principle I suppose. But also because I know those services are available.”

Woody said that he had previously sought funding to support his organization’s expunction services but was not able to get traction. His non-profit, The Justice Restoration Center, will help any victim that approaches them, he said, but they are constrained by the number of cases they can take on simultaneously.

Woody said he has spoken with legislative aides for Osgood regarding the bill. Osgood could not be reached for comment by the Sun Sentinel.

Subtleties, like the difference between Osgood’s and Woody’s visions for a trust fund, can get lost without input from experts and victims, according to members of the anti-trafficking group. Without feedback, Lares is concerned that the state will have a repeat of a weakness in Florida’s anti-trafficking regulations on hotels. The Sun Sentinel found that Florida has never issued a fine for laws meant to prevent trafficking at hotels, despite thousands of violations.

Rushing forward on new legislation without talking to the right stakeholders “can backfire,” Lares said. “It either won’t have teeth, like before with the hotel bill … or it will just bring kind of more confusion.”

“It makes me scratch my head that our elected officials are not kind of doing their homework,” he said.

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