TAMPA — Before a crowded auditorium of University of South Florida students, Gov. Rick Scott spoke of the alarming scourge of human trafficking on the Sunshine State.
He cited data, including the oft-repeated statistic that Florida ranks third in the nation in cases of human trafficking. It is a unique problem, the governor said, one that demands the wrath of aggressive legislation and enforcement.
"You just can't imagine how anybody does this to another human being," he said.
Scott led a queue of state law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, and others who on Thursday morning kicked off the annual Human Trafficking Summit at USF's Marshall Student Center.
The daylong summit, organized by the Department of Juvenile Justice, featured an assortment of panels and speakers whose stated mission was to bring attention to the issue, with an emphasis on combatting the problem in Florida.
The governor noted efforts the state has already made to fight the problem, including the signing earlier this year of two bills focusing on human trafficking. The new laws will, among other things, allow victims to petition courts to have human-trafficking-related arrests expunged from their criminal records.
He praised Bondi, who has made combatting human trafficking a top priority of state law enforcement in recent years.
"Three years ago, no one was listening," Bondi said. "I didn't know how bad it was, even as a prosecutor."
In kicking off the summit, Scott honored a handful of people whose efforts he said have had a major impact on what he insisted is a dire problem affecting the state.
Among them was Telisia Espinoza, who told her story of being forced into a life of prostitution as a young woman. Scott also presented a handful of awards, including the summit's law enforcement officer of the year award, which went to Orlando police Sgt. Patrick Guckian, who has spearheaded anti-human-trafficking efforts with his agency.
Though Bondi and others have emphasized Florida's status as a magnet for human traffickers and their victims, state officials acknowledge that the actual extent of the problem is difficult to gauge.
"We don't really have an understanding of the extent of the problem," said Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "We don't have consistent data."
Bailey added that statistical efforts to better assess the prevalence of human trafficking are under way.