The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said more resources for human trafficking victims and community awareness are essential to addressing the problem in Jacksonville.
Several City Council members met with State Attorney Melissa Nelson, Sheriff Mike William, and others Monday to talk about how to help.
Florida ranks third in the country for human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking, as well as forcing someone to work without compensation.
State Attorney Chief Assistant Mac Heavener, who has prosecuted federal human trafficking cases, said labor traffickers are more difficult to find than sex traffickers, and in Jacksonville victims range from landscapers to construction workers and housekeepers.
“Usually those cases result from a concerned citizen who sees something that they think looks odd and they call the authorities and that’s been where we’ve had the most success,” he said.
JSO Lieutenant Kevin Goff said labor trafficking is 10 times harder to investigate than sex trafficking. That’s why Williams said awareness of the “modern slavery” is so important.
Last year, the city posted signs in massage parlors and strip clubs with information about trafficking along with a hotline for victims. Williams said that’s been a big step, but awareness efforts need to be expanded.
JSO Undersheriff Pat Ivey told council members trafficking was prevalent in 153 hotels last year in Jacksonville, but the council committee decided against adding signage to the hotel locations.
Several advocacy group leaders, including CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center Lawanda Ravoira, said JSO should consider rethinking its approach to prostitution arrests because many of those people could be sex trafficking victims.
“Even when we talk about prostitution we’re putting the blame on the women. We’re not talking about the culture,” she said. “The fact that we pay money doesn’t give us permission to abuse and rape another person, so the importance of that cultural shift and the language shift is where Jacksonville needs to start.”
Goff said one issue is people arrested for prostitution don’t always admit or recognize they are being forced to work. Sex trafficking advocate Kristin Keen of the organization Rethreaded suggested focusing on the demand side of the prostitution transaction and asked JSO to look at the approach other cities take, like Seattle’s.
Williams said he’d be glad to look at how other cities are addressing the issue. “I think any new ideas like that are great.” Williams said. “We don’t have to create them here. I’m all about stealing a good idea from somebody. We’re going to pull some of the information and if we can make it work here, we will.”
Williams said, historically, JSO hadn’t done the best job viewing prostitutes as possible victims, but he said officers have done better over the last decade.
However, he said the victims they do identify need more services, from housing, to job training, to lawyers who will help a sex trafficking victim get prostitution charges wiped from their records pro-bono. And that’s what Jacksonville City Councilman John Crescimbeni is focusing on with a committee he’s forming.
He said 30 years ago, Jacksonville was a model for victims’ services. The city won national awards and other cities looked to Jacksonville for ideas, but not anymore.
“That dedication has eroded over the years,” he said. “I just want to get everyone at the one table and figure out how we can become as good as we were in the late 1980s, early 1990s.”
Crescimbeni said about 15 people will be on his committee, from the mayor's office, to people who worked in victims services before. He imagines the process will take three or four months.