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New state laws will ease toll on human-trafficking victims

CLEARWATER — Ten years after Telisia Espinosa had broken free, her life on the lam with the boyfriend who had urged her to sell her body for cash continued to haunt her.

From Las Vegas to Cleveland to Florida, Espinosa had racked up arrests for prostitution, loitering, solicitation — so many charges that, years later, it would take her months to track down all the arrest warrants she didn't even realize she had.

"You have a person who sells you and exploits you," said Espinosa, a 37-year-old Tampa woman whose record has barred her from jobs and even from volunteering with the human trafficking victims whose stories match her own. "They may have a slap on the wrist and then you're paying for it with the rest of your life."

That will all change today.

Gov. Rick Scott is due this afternoon at the Drug Free America Foundation in St. Petersburg to, among other things, sign two human-trafficking bills into law.

The legislation will allow victims to petition the court to have human trafficking-related arrests and convictions expunged from their records. One section would allow victims up to age 16 to submit an out-of-court statement rather than testify in open court.

On Wednesday, experts attending a three-day human trafficking summit in Clearwater hosted by the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators applauded the new laws, which they say will address the "masking charges" — drugs, truancy, shoplifting and, most often, prostitution — that victims accumulate at the hands of their exploiters and finally give them the confidence to reveal themselves to law enforcement.

"That's the logic of this new law — we need to scratch below the surface to see if this offense was committed as a result of their being trafficked," said Terry Coonan, executive director of Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Added IAHTI executive director Jeremy Lewis: "I personally believe this bill will give victims a second shot at life — to get jobs, go to college, vote, become productive members of society."

The summit drew more than 160 people who learned what signs to look for and who to call to help law enforcement find traffickers, victims and johns.

Trafficking has become a hot topic in Tampa Bay, where law enforcement this month reported busts of two separate sex rings within days of each other. Authorities say pimps used Backpage.com to advertise the services of teen runaways or women they recruited from local strips clubs and forced into prostitution.

Coonan said Florida, No. 3 for trafficking behind California and New York, has slowly been strengthening its laws.

For example, lawmakers last year raised fines for johns from $50 to $5,000 in an effort to deter the people who drive demand.

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice human trafficking director Tyson Elliott said his agency has added new questions to its intake assessment to find victims who are booked on charges unrelated to prostitution. For example, traffickers sometimes brand their victims with tattoos, so evaluators who notice a youth's ink will ask its meaning and who paid for it.

However, he and others said there's a lack of trauma therapists to treat victims once they are identified. Also lacking are safe houses, toiletries and other resources to help those rescued.

"In the state as a whole, that's one of the most glaring needs we have — what to do with (victims) and who to refer them to once we've identified them," he said.

New state laws will ease toll on human-trafficking victims 05/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 9:55pm]
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