Florida lawmakers look to ban hourly motel rates, increase penalties for human trafficking

Researchers and providers who help human trafficking survivors say there really isn’t a clear picture of the problem in communities across Florida, so a bill in the state legislature aims to create a central hub for data and increase penalties.

"Unfortunately it’s really targeting our youth. When you think about the age that most people start in human trafficking, it’s ages 12 to 14," said State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

Rep. Toledo filed HB 1439 this month and the bill has three parts: banning hourly rates at hotels, motels and vacation rentals; increasing penalties for offenders such as turning a first-time offense from a misdemeanor to a felony; and setting a centralized data collection center at University of South Florida through the Trafficking in Persons Risk to Resilience Lab (TIP) in St. Pete. 

TIP Lab director Joan Reid said over 100 providers who care for victims told researchers they need data to better address the problem.

"All of them asked for data, they want data, not just a statewide total of how many trafficking events there are from the national hotline. They want to know what’s happening as far as human trafficking incidents in their neighborhood, in their zip code," said Reid, an associate professor of criminology at USF. "We could see what’s working, what’s not working, where are the trends in human trafficking, what types of human trafficking are happening where."

Shelly Wagers also works at the TIP Lab and told FOX13 the data they currently have access to isn’t specific or very accurate.

"So law enforcement collects a certain type of data. Children and families collects another type of data, and we don't know how this data connects," said Wagers, an assistant professor of criminology at USF. "We know trafficking has movement and there's different types of traffickers. There's different types of trafficked victims. You have sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and they look very differently. They require different policies. They require different efforts to address some overlap, some unique."

Anti-trafficking researchers said a creating central data center could set a blueprint for other states to follow.

"Right now, we’re addressing human trafficking in the dark, and so this would really shine a light on what’s going on, give us a comprehensive picture of what’s happening in Florida, so we can address it effectively," said Reid.

State Rep. Toledo said the bill has partisan support, and it’s currently in the criminal justice subcommittee. It’s expected to be heard Tuesday at 1 p.m.