JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Prosecutors and agencies are changing how they approach prostitution charges by now targeting the root of the problem on a national level.
In Florida this year, 4th Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson introduced a new human rights division dedicated to pursuing and prosecuting offenders engaged in trafficking other people.
The initiative, led by Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson, dedicates an investigator and detectives to cases involving human trafficking in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. Wolfson said their division has charged five defendants since January. All the cases are pending.
The Florida Department of Children and Families received nearly 1,892 reports of human trafficking last year, a 54 percent increase from 2015. The state attorneys who spoke to First Coast News attribute that spike in cases to more awareness, which ultimately leads to better reporting. It’s also due to a swell in these types of crimes being committed.
Prostitution vs. Trafficking: A criminal context
Trafficking differs from prostitution because it involves force, coercion or control to make another person enter the sex trade for a profit, Wolfson said.
“A lot of the women we see who are human trafficking victims, human trafficking survivors, they are actually being controlled by drugs,” she explained.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Mac Heavener said trafficking cases often encompasses other crimes including drug, firearms and domestic violence charges.
“There’s just a whole range of criminal offenses that can come out of these cases all the way up to murder,” Heavener said.
Tracing the buyers and rescuing the bought
The number of girls being trafficked into the First Coast for the sex trade can be difficult to track.
Heavener, who has been handling federal cases for 20 years and human trafficking cases for 10 years, said the number of girls being trafficked into the area can depend on the time of year. One of those times being the annual Florida-Georgia game.
“It’s always a concern when we have big sporting events,” he said.
Big events in Jacksonville bring and influx of people from out of town, and traffickers see this as an opportunity to make fast money. In one night, Heavener estimates a trafficker can make $1,000 from selling one child to an average four buyers for sex.
But how do these transactions between buyers and those being trafficked occur?
Embattled site BackPage.com has notoriously been used to set up commercial sexual encounters.
But these websites are also being used by investigators to track down those involved. They also use hotel records, cellphone records, witness accounts and other paperwork to track and capture those breaking the law, the attorneys said.
Heavener said under Florida law, even if a buyer does not know an escort is underage, he can still be charged with engaging in sex with a minor or lewd acts against a child.
As for the girls and women being trafficked, Florida has relaxed laws against them for engaging in commercial sex.
The Florida Legislature recently made changes in what police are allowed to do when encountering a young girl being trafficked or prostituted, said Heavener.
While prosecuting minors for prostitution is frowned upon, it’s not illegal, Heavener said. But prosecutors and law enforcement have the option under Florida law to provide alternatives to jail time.
“Now when an officer encounters a child who’s engaged in commercial sex activity, instead of arresting that child, they now have the ability to take that child to a DCF safehouse,” Heavener said.
Solving the epidemic
One publicized program used in Seattle reduces the penalties for those who may, in fact, be involved with sex trafficking.
Similar diversion programs are being considered in Nelson’s office, aimed at expanding options to those arrested.
“Instead of getting prosecuted for prostitution, the person that’s been arrested, they agree with the state to participate in some kind of program” Heavener said.
New programs may be on the horizon for those arrested for prostitution on the First Coast. Of the possible changes, Wolfson said human trafficking survivors would still have to go through the court system for various crimes like battery, DUI, and others, but the process would be sensitive to the trauma they’ve endured.
“I think something like that would be greatly beneficial to these individuals,” Wolfson said. “I don’t know if it would be exactly like a veteran’s court, but something to that effect where they have structure and resources to help [survivors] get out of that lifestyle they’ve been in.”