TALLAHASSEE — Earlier this year, state lawmakers promised to fight human trafficking — and to provide more support for the child victims.
They made good on their word on the second-to-last day of session.
On Thursday, the Senate passed two bills dealing with human trafficking. One imposes tougher penalties for adults who force children into domestic servitude or the commercial sex trade. The other ensures that the young victims get the help they need.
Both bills, which had already passed the House, are now headed to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who sponsored the Senate proposals, said the bills were of utmost importance to her.
"This is something that is happening in our back yard," said Flores, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Sex trafficking, human trafficking, this is something that is happening with our own little girls across the state of Florida."
The trafficking bills were also priority for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
"We are uniform in our resolve to make Florida a zero tolerance state for sex trafficking and domestic servitude," Bondi said at a February press conference. "What we need are some strong laws for our state law enforcement officers."
To that end, Flores filed legislation that would make human trafficking a felony. The proposal also sought to enhance penalties for offenders and allow law enforcement officers to investigate the massage parlors that sometimes serve as sex-trafficking fronts.
Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, carried the bill in the House.
Separately, Flores and Reps. Erik Fresen and Jeanette Nunez, both of Miami, filed legislation to route child victims through specialized safe houses. That proposal spells out the duties, responsibilities and requirements of safe houses and their operators — and requires special training for police officers who work with sexually exploited children.
"This represents a paradigm shift," Fresen said. "Never before did we have, in the law, the recognition that these girls should be presumed to be victims, not criminals."
Both proposals won unanimous approval of the House in February. Flores got a similar show of support in the Senate on Thursday.
"The state of Florida is not going to stand on the sidelines anymore," she said. "We are going to take this seriously… We are going to make it so that this is not a profitable business."
Times/Herald staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report.