TAMPA, Fla. — A penalty meant to punish sex buyers and help child victims is falling short.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern spent the last four months digging into state and county records, following the money and found a disconnect between the arrest, prosecution and collection of a fine meant to help kids in Florida safe houses.
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When a person pays for sex with an adult, that sex buyer or “john” is fined.
In January 2013, a state law went into effect increasing that fine from $500 to $5,000. There have been challenges to the state statute, with criticism the $5,000 is excessive and unconstitutional.
In 2016, a district court of appeal in Florida concluded the fine is not excessive.
- $4,050 — Deposited into the Operations and Maintenance Trust Fund of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) “for the sole purpose of funding safe houses and safe foster homes.”
- $500 — Paid to the circuit court administrator to pay the administrative costs of treatment-based drug court programs
- $450 — Retained by the clerks
THE SAFE HOUSES
The fines the state collects from sex buyers account for a portion of the overall funding of Florida’s safe houses and safe foster homes receive from DCF to provide care and services to child victims of human trafficking.
“It’s their first time typically that they have a safe place to stay,” John Long, executive director of the USIAHT’s safe house said. “It’s life-changing. We’re taking kids that are living on the street, that are being sold, sometimes up to 10 times in one day, and we’re providing them a place where they can not only be safe but feel safe.”
The home opened four years ago and has served 28 boys.
“We’re in dire need of funding,” Long said.
Long said his organization does not receive a breakdown of where their funding is coming from through DCF. So he can’t determine how much money USIAHT has received from the $4,050 portion of the $5,000 fine the counties turn over to the state.
“I think there was a lot of conversation when it was initially brought up, when it was initially signed in, but since that time, the conversation has kind of gone quiet,” Long said, of the law establishing the increased fine to benefit safe houses. “You’re the first person that we’ve come in contact with in a long time that’s brought it up.”
The I-Team obtained state records from DCF and found the agency has turned over $1.8 million to safe houses and safe foster homes over the last eight years — revenue generated specifically from this collected fine.
“We need the judicial system to be aware of what they can do with their power and where that money is really going,” Long said.
In Hillsborough County, the sheriff’s office arrested 196 sex buyers between Jan. 1, 2013, and Jan. 1, 2021.
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Records from the Hillsborough County clerk’s office show over the same eight-year time period, 159 people were fined. The clerk’s office turned over nearly $105,000 to the state — an average of $657 for each person fined.
That’s about $640,000 short of what safe houses would have received from Hillsborough County if every person fined paid the full amount and DCF received its $4,050 cut.
LOCAL COLLECTIONS SENT TO DCF FUND FOR SAFE HOUSES SINCE 2013:
- Hillsborough - $104,529.58
- Pinellas - $163,598.25
- Polk - $896,804.98
- Pasco - $27,067.72
- Manatee - $60,819.16
- Sarasota - $60,119.17
*Data provided through January 2021
The I-Team brought its findings to Natasha Nascimento, founder of the nonprofit Redefining Refuge, which works with child human trafficking victims in need of services.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Nascimento said. “We’re not enforcing the law.”
Nascimento was among those pushing to increase the fine back in 2012.
Nascimento compared the accountability of a convicted sex buyer to that of someone found guilty of driving under the influence.
“When you get a DUI, there are very, very concrete consequences. You’re going to get your car impounded, you’re going to get points on your license, you have to attend a driving school,” Nascimento said. “We don’t have that with the buying or soliciting of sex. There are no definitive consequences. They seem to be very gray, there’s no black and white.”
But when the I-Team reviewed records showing fines collected from every county clerk across the state, Polk County stood out.
The Polk County Clerk’s Office has collected more fines from sex buyers than any other county in the state.
By far, Polk County has collected nearly $900,000 — four times than what Broward County has collected, even though it has double Polk County’s population.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is known for undercover stings resulting in the arrest of hundreds of johns over the years.
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- 103 arrested for human trafficking in Polk Co.
“The whole idea is not only to stop the johns or make the penalty pretty harsh for them, but understand if there were no johns, there would be no victims of sex trafficking," he added.
But even in Polk County, the fine collections between Jan. 1, 2013, and Jan. 1, 2021, are still nearly $760,000 short of what would otherwise go to supporting Florida’s safe houses.
The clerk’s office provided data to the I-Team showing between Jan. 1, 2013, and as recently as April 30, 2021, 872 cases were charged and of those cases, 416 were assessed the fine.
“Some people are found not guilty. Some people, maybe the cases are dropped. But I have seen some cases where the fine was not implemented by the courts as it should have been. It should always be implemented by the courts, and ultimately take that fine money and specifically help the victims of human trafficking,” Judd said.
State Attorney Brian Haas told the I-Team his prosecutors go for the fine when they can.
“When we’re able to and the facts apply to the particular law, then yes, we would certainly seek the fine,” Haas said. “You make sure that they’re going to be held responsible. Whether it’s being placed on probation and put through some courses to make sure they understand the real impacts of what they’re doing, but also we want to make sure we send a message to them by hitting them in their wallet. And so when you have to pay a $5,000 fine, I don’t care who you are. That’s a lot of money. And they get the message when they have to write that check.”
But not all will write that check.
Haas said the path from arrest to prosecution to the collection of the fine can be more complicated.
“Some cases, there may be some legal or factual issues with them and they just simply can’t be brought all of the way through the system. And then there are other circumstances where the people just flat don’t have the money. And if they don’t, then you’re not going to be able to collect that high amount from them,” Haas said.
A spokesperson for the clerk’s office told the I-Team that not all of the fines assessed had the full penalty due:
“Many older cases may have been waived for various reasons or the defendant could have done community service in lieu of payment. Its possible repeat offenders may have been incarcerated on similar or other charges. Fines of this amount often go unpaid for a long time due to incarceration, the economy, etc. Also, we have many people on payment plans, so some people are still actively making partial payments.”
In a statement, Polk County Clerk of Courts Stacy Butterfield said she has a department that works with people to set up payment plans.
“When it comes to collecting court fines, my approach is to employ measures that increase the likelihood that the individual will be able to fulfill the ordered obligations. I have an entire department dedicated to working with each individual to set up a payment plan that they’ll be able to keep up with, and we have implemented tools to make it easy for customers to fulfill their obligations, including online applications and payments. Compliance officers are assigned to each customer for the duration of the plan.”
A spokesperson said these cases are not sent to a collection agency.
Hillsborough County offers payment plans as well, but the clerk’s office also uses collection agencies in an effort to get people to pay up.
“The Clerk for Hillsborough County is statutorily required to pursue the collection of all unpaid court-ordered financial obligations. We do so through the use of Clerk generated collection notices and recordation of civil liens against any real property owned by the party.
We also utilize third-party collection agencies if the defendant fails to timely pay their obligations. The Clerk’s office makes it convenient to pay court-ordered obligations through structured payment plans for those that can’t afford to pay the full amount all at one time.
We also offer 24/7 payment access through local Amscot offices, online payments as well as our virtual phone attendant.”
Nascimento told the I-Team there needs to be more consistency in the way the law is being applied.
“It’s a conversation that needs to be had with service providers, with our law enforcement, with our prosecutor’s office… about how we can enforce this in the best interest of the victims that we’re serving and not in the best interest of the buyers that are soliciting,” she said.
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.