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Sunday Conversation: Federal prosecutor Stacie Cox Harris battles against human trafficking

Courtesy of Florida State University Alumni Association Left, Stacie Harris Cox,  assistant United States attorney for the Middle District of Florida and an FSU graduate, was one of four Tampa women honored with the university alumni association's Inspire Award in 2017. Posing with her is SallyMcRorie, FSU Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Courtesy of Florida State University Alumni Association Left, Stacie Harris Cox, assistant United States attorney for the Middle District of Florida and an FSU graduate, was one of four Tampa women honored with the university alumni association's Inspire Award in 2017. Posing with her is SallyMcRorie, FSU Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Published Jan. 31, 2018

Stacie Cox Harris was born into public service. The Tallahassee native's mother is a longtime state employee who worked in both the departments of Labor and Juvenile Justice, while her father worked at City Hall. As a high school and college student, Harris spent her summers interning at various municipal and state agencies. Upon graduating from the Florida State University law school, however, Harris opted to work in private practice in a Tampa law firm.

But after hearing a colleague's experiences about working as a federal prosecutor, Harris began to consider shifting to the public sector.

In 2008 she was hired as an assistant United States attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, serving as chief of the major crimes division and human trafficking coordinator.

In this role, Harris prosecutes those who perpetrate Florida's pervasive human trafficking problem. The state ranked third — behind California and Texas — in the number of reported cases in 2016, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that tracks the number of calls to the national trafficking hotline.

It's tough, gritty work that takes a certain kind of person to balance axing traffickers while changing the conversation around victims to be more empathetic.

Harris, who also obtained her bachelor's degree from Florida State, said she is up for the challenge.

"I love my job and I love what I do," said Harris, who was named "Prosecutor of the Year" by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013.

"It fulfills me and I'm happy to do it."

Harris recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about building a career dismantling the Tampa Bay area's web of human trafficking and helping those recovered from its threads restore their lives.

You've prosecuted 20 cases in the last 10 years. In one case, you recovered 10 victims. Why is the Tampa area such a hotbed for this activity?

Human trafficking is defined as indentured servitude, child soldiers, and commercial sex trafficking. What we see most is labor and commercial sex trafficking. It's Central Florida, it's a huge tourist industry. You have a large population of transient people and there are big events. Also, there's a large migrant population, many of whom are not here legally.

You sort of pioneered the position you're in today. How did you get into this work?

In 2008, the division created a new prosecutor position to handle human trafficking crimes after the federal statute (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) was reauthorized. There hadn't been a lot of cases tested. I partnered with a FBI agent right as the agency was starting its Innocence Lost Initiative, which targeted helping teenage runaways who were sex trafficking victims. That agent and I built this program and ran away with it.

A lot of people shied away from these cases. These are cases that are hard. You don't have a lot of victims who are sympathetic. When a jury sees these victims, they don't often see their daughters. There needed to be a culture switch. The mindset was, 'This was a choice, they want to do it.' It was hard.

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What are some misconceptions that people may have about sex trafficking?

It's not about mobility. It's in plain sight. Gangs will sell girls instead of drugs because it's easier. With girls, you can sell her over and over again, whereas with drugs if you are stopped that's a violation.

I've had an opportunity to talk with several defendants. I had one tell me, "I didn't see what the big deal is, it's just sex." To them, they don't understand. In the past, pimp culture has been glorified so much that a lot of them don't understand why it's illegal.

How do young people slip into the seedy world of commercial sex trafficking?

These traffickers are able to identify those vulnerabilities and exploit that. Maybe they've never had a family and so the if the trafficker buys a purse or dinner, then they figure out how they can manipulate the victim.

Unfortunately, (commercial sex trafficking) is accepted as normal. Many of our victims don't know they are victims. There are days, months, years of abuse because they don't know that their bodies are theirs they don't know what love is.

You direct the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force and are involved in the Central Florida Crimes Against Children Task Force. What's the function of these groups and what are they doing to change the conversation around human trafficking?

The primary function of the Human Trafficking Task Force is bringing together law enforcement to identify and dismantle human trafficking organizations. We also utilize non-governmental agencies we can call on to help victims.

A part of it is education. Human trafficking has been the hot topic for the last seven years. The task force gets out into the community and speaks with students and organizations and churches so they understand what it is and what it's not.

In this position, you've come across many young people who were taken advantage of by adults they thought they could trust. What motivates you?

The thing that's stood out and keeps me going is the victims. These are young women and men who have been exploited over and over again. They are the people who need someone to fight for them the most. A lot of them are so broken and they are so young. I tell them that they have a lot of life to live. It's important that we give them the tools to rebuild their lives, whether its trauma treatment or getting them back in school.

We help them return to being effective members of society.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity can clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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