Political and civic leaders across Tampa Bay are getting behind a worthwhile effort this month to highlight the scourge of human trafficking. Child sex slavery has long operated below the radar. By giving this crime a very public face, Florida will be more effective in crafting a robust response.
Florida ranks third in the country in human trafficking, a crime under state and federal laws that includes sex slavery and forced labor. The awareness campaign that begins this week is an effort by the Junior League of Tampa and other partners to raise awareness of the problem, and to prod state lawmakers and policymakers to find solutions that better protect children and punish abusers. The campaign will use traditional advertising — public service announcements, billboards and the like — and also a busy schedule of public events. (For a listing, check www.jltampa.org.)
This effort should bring some unity to efforts by politicians, law enforcement and community activists to strengthen the child protection system. Police and prosecutors need to understand how traffickers operate. Judges need to distinguish between sex workers and sex slaves. And state and local officials should repair the holes in the social safety net that put at-risk teens and younger children in danger.
Aside from giving victims guidance on where to seek help, this month's campaign could be a building block for the future. Hillsborough County commissioners will discuss the effort today as they look to convene a strategy session in the coming weeks for officials and interest groups from the Tampa Bay area. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualiteri has recognized human trafficking as a major threat and recently formed a special unit to crack down on trafficking cases. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough prosecutor, has made trafficking enforcement cases a priority. The League of Women Voters and other advocates are also working with lawmakers on legislation for this spring that would increase the penalty for human trafficking.
Increasing public awareness, giving victims a better way out and moving across a broad front to crack down on trafficking are significant goals. Achieving them will require sustaining this effort far beyond the end of this ad campaign, and legislators and local officials should pursue pragmatic solutions.