TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Ashley Moody is lobbying for a version of human trafficking legislation that does not include provisions making it easier for victims to expunge their record, a piece survivors say is key to helping them re-enter society.
Moody’s office won’t say why she supports a Senate version of human trafficking legislation that does not include expungement language, and not a House version that would allow victims to erase their record of offenses committed while they were trafficked in multiple jurisdictions. Allowing their records to be cleared in multiple jurisdictions at once, survivors say, would allow sex trafficking survivors to get their lives back on track quicker and help them gain employment.
“We will continue to work with the sponsors and legislators to pass the best possible bill to advocate for victims of this horrific crime,” said Lauren Cassedy, a Moody spokesperson.
Moody’s office has “waived in support” of the Senate legislation, and in committee stops in that chamber, Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah), has thanked her office for their support, according to video of those meetings.
In response to follow up questions about their rationale for supporting the Senate bill, Cassedy would not elaborate.
“Our office is supportive of both the House and Senate versions,” she said. “Our goal is to have passed the best possible bill to combat human trafficking.”
The behind-the-scenes fight comes as the House and Senate work to try and align sweeping human trafficking bills after lawmakers advanced the measures through committee stops. The bills now await floor consideration, with just three weeks left in 2021 legislative session. As the clock winds down on the session, Moody’s involvement with the bill has intensified and put her at odds with some survivors of sex trafficking.
“I think expungement is very important,” said Savannah Parvu, who grew up in Central Florida and first became a victim at 11 years old, when her own mother sold Parvu into prostitution to fund her drug addiction. “I know we do a lot of work in awareness where victims can be recovered. But we don’t help them once they’re recovered, and we don’t help them with jobs.”
“So this has the potential really to save lives,” added Parvu, who Moody appointed in 2019 to the Direct Support Organization for the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.
Janice Tucker, who at the age of 31-years-old, was one of eight victims involved in the 2015 “Pop-A-Smurf” drug trafficking ring that forced women to become prostitutes to pay off drug debts. When Orlando law enforcement arrested those responsible, Tucker and other trafficking victims were included. They were also charged with racketeering. In Florida, that’s a first-degree felony defense that carries up to a 30 year prison sentence.
“If victim’s records get expunged faster, they’ll be able to move on with their lives,” Tucker said. “I knew that what I was involved in was wrong, but I didn’t realize that I was the victim of the crime, not the perpetrator.”
“When I was arrested, and [the police] told me I was a trafficking victim, I didn’t believe it,” he said.
Tucker’s record was eventually cleared, but at a cost of $10,000 in legal fees? that she was able to cover with the help of the Justice Restoration Center, which provides legal help to trafficking survivors.
The House version of the human trafficking bill (HB 525), sponsored by state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa), would allow human trafficking victims to seek their records cleared in multiple jurisdictions at once. But the Senate version, sponsored by Diaz, does not include any expungement reform language. Moody’s staff has supported that version in committee, and her office has sent clear signals to those working on the legislation that she does not agree with the expungement language.
Moody’s “priority has been the Senate bill over the House bill, and the expungement part has been the hang-up,” said one lobbyist, who is directly involved with the bill, but spoke on a condition of anonymity to not anger Moody. “Expungement is incredibly important for victims of human trafficking because it is an asterisk that follows them.”
Both versions expand the state’s definition of sex trafficking, increases penalties for perpetrators, and actively encourages states attorneys to have pro-prosecution policies in relation to sex trafficking. But lawmakers disagree over the House expungement language, which would also waive court fees related to expunging a sex trafficking victim’s record.
It’s not the only difference between the two bills, but is one of the major disputes.
“After speaking with victims and survivors from across the state, I realized how harmful the barriers were for a victim to re-enter society and live a normal life after being saved from traffickers,” Toledo said. “Expungement reform is crucial in that rehabilitation process for victims and I believe colleagues in both chambers will support this important policy.”
Diaz said he is open to the idea of expungement language in his bill, but senators are trying to figure out whether they can include such language without a separate bill creating a public records exemption, which is required to create such an exception. The House has a linked exemption bill, the Senate does not.
“We are actually trying to figure out if it can be done without a public records exemption, that’s the issue we are wrestling with,” he said. “If we can get it done without putting the rest of the bill in peril, we would consider” [expungement language].
Diaz said the Senate did not start with the expungement language because “it was an issue that was initiated in the House.” He said he could not speak to Moody’s position on the expungement language.
“I have not had any further conversations on the policy itself,” he said. “But more so dealing with the procedural at this point.”
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