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Prostitution: A Florida snapshot

A Florida Snapshot

Several years ago, the U.S. Justice Department commissioned a survey of prostitution in eight major U.S. cities, including Miami, comparing 2003 to 2007. Some Miami findings:

  • Street prostitutes in Miami shifted dramatically from U.S. minors to drug-addicted U.S. women and men. Streetwalking, the lowest-paying form of prostitution charging as little as $15 per act, was down considerably. “The girls are going inside to the strip clubs and massage parlors and the internet because I think they’re getting more money inside and the police aren’t as prevalent on the inside of those places,” one law officer said.
  • Prostitutes at escort services charged $600 to $1,000 per hour and came from Eastern Europe, sometimes on U.S. visas for cultural exchanges, academic research and business training. Some had H2B visas, the visas for workers U.S. industry finds in short supply. International crime networks, which local law enforcement lacks the resources to pursue, controlled the prostitute flow.
  • Brothels were primarily run by people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They were family-run rather than operated by criminal networks. Prostitutes tended to be women who worked voluntarily but likely came to the U.S. as minors and were forced into prostitution to pay off debts to smugglers. Their route to Florida followed that of migrant farmworkers, their primary clients. A charge was $25 for 15 minutes.
  • Online prostitution ranged from escort services’ dedicated websites to Craigslist and Backpage personals. U.S. minors who five years earlier worked the streets had moved online. Prostitutes found it pays better — $150 to $300 an hour — and was safer than the street in terms of assaults and arrests. Police find online prostitution easier to track.
  • Massage parlors were run by Chinese nationals, were highly organized and had direct links to China. Chinese prostitutes displaced Hispanic sex workers in the massage business. Such parlors operated throughout urban and suburban south Florida.
  • Many pimps were former drug dealers who found pimping more lucrative and safer from arrest. A Miami pimp’s mean weekly income was $17,741. Pimps networked socially with each other, keeping tabs on law enforcement, were knowledgeable about the conviction rate of particular prosecuting attorneys and made their plea decisions accordingly and were savvy about holding property in their own names. They competed over things like who had the biggest ring, but not violently. “It’s almost like if they’re all making money, it’s fine,” an officer said.
  • The underground sex economy in 2007 in Miami was $235 million, down from $302 million in 2003 but still bigger than Miami’s underground drug and gun economies. Miami was second to Atlanta’s sex economy.

Off the Street

Most enforcement efforts these days focus on services advertised online — most particularly on human trafficking.

In October, Polk County once again made regional news with a big prostitution bust, some 277 johns and hookers arrested in an undercover sting named “Operation No Tricks, No Treats.” Such endeavors happen regularly in Polk under Sheriff Grady Judd.

Judd’s jurisdiction’s, which encompasses some 420,000 people, is one of the more prolific enforcers of prostitution law in Florida. In 2016, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, the Polk Sheriff’s office made 209 prostitution arrests. In Broward County, which has a population of 1.9 million, the county’s various police forces arrested only 219 people. Miami- Dade County police, who cover 1.2 million people, made 86 arrests. All of Hillsborough — 1.35 million people — chalked up just 181 arrests, mostly in Tampa, which accounted for 113 of them.

Judd says Polk doesn’t have any more prostitutes per capita than Tampa or southeast Florida. “We have less. The overwhelming majority of people we arrest don’t come from this county. They come from other counties.”

Indeed, if prostitution arrest statistics in Florida prove anything, it’s that enforcement is idiosyncratic.

Behind the statistics, the world’s oldest profession is a sad business. Polk’s stings snare some adults who thought they would hook up with minors. There’s a bushel of people who took a break from family at home or from family on vacation to meet up with what they thought was a prostitute.

It doesn’t get better in the big city. Last year, a federal judge in south Florida sentenced 50-yearold Spanish immigrant Miguel A. Hernandez to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his “highly profit- able” prostitution business, “International Playmates,” launched in 2010 from a Fort Lauderdale hotel. He imported women from Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and Latin America to complement his Miami-area women, buying the women plane tickets and helping them with immigration paperwork and through Customs.

Hernandez already had been sentenced to six years in prison in Spain for immigration fraud but skipped to the United States without serving his sentence. He prostituted at least three minors.

“Prostitution is decreasing on the street, but thriving online,” according to a study for the U.S. Justice Department released in 2014. Taking the business online is easier, pays better and is safer in terms of assaults and arrests for prostitutes than streetwalking. Interestingly, it’s also easier for law enforcement to track it online and ferret out minors and the worst of pimps and traffickers.

But in some neighborhoods, streetwalkers still become enough of a nuisance that police crack down. (You can use Google maps to find out where prostitution arrests occur in a given locale.) Lake Worth, a city of 37,000 in Palm Beach County, saw 103 arrests last year. Miami city police, covering 456,000 people, made fewer — 96. News reports through recent years chronicle Lake Worth’s attempts to rid itself of the problem.

Law enforcement agencies in metros that seem to have relatively small number of prostitution arrests say it’s because they’ve moved from racking up busts of prostitutes to treating them as victims, getting them job and drug counseling or other social services, and going after pimps on human-trafficking charges.

“That’s a big change in the philosophy of law enforcement,” says Ron Stucker, director of the Orlando-area Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation Task Force, a multi-agency group, the website of which says it “maintains Orlando’s family oriented reputation by monitoring the Adult Entertainment industry, as well as targeting narcotics trafficking organizations, vice enterprises, and organized crime.”

Judd too sees some prostitutes as victims and says Polk works to get them social services and into a new life. He says his prostitution round-ups discourage johns — who generally are charged with a misdemeanor — and get women and girls into custody where they can receive help and become wit- nesses against their pimps.

“Our true focus,” Judd says, “is the pimp, is the human trafficker. In order to get to him, we have to get to her. You’ve got to identify these victims. These victims don’t come forward.

“The reason I’m proactive is because I have a passion to protect young women from human trafficking. At the end of the day my heart breaks for these young women, as young as 14 and 15 years of age, who are treated this way.”

‘Below Polk Standards’

At a time when a lot of police departments don’t even have something called a vice squad and arrests for gambling and prostitution have fallen dramatically, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd posts arrest numbers that make the central Florida county look like a relative den of iniquity.

Judd, 63, Polk’s sheriff since 2004, hammers vice crimes — to copious media attention. Despite having only 420,000 people under his office’s jurisdiction, his office is in the top five in Florida for prostitution and gambling arrests.

Judd says he’s just doing his job, staying ahead of crime, whether it’s violent crime, non-violent crime — both down — or vice crimes. “I don’t have streetwalkers in this county. You know why? Because we don’t allow it,” Judd says. “You stay out there (enforcing the law) and do it often enough, they do something else.”

The same goes for gambling. He tells the story of an internet cafe that opened this year on U.S. 27. Within days of it opening, he had undercover investigators inside. Within a couple weeks he made arrests, seized equipment and shut it down.

He says you also won’t find strip clubs, illegal massage parlors and XXX-rated bookstores on his watch. “We don’t allow that here,” he says. He references a famous U.S. Supreme Court case that tied obscenity enforcement to community standards. Such places are below Polk standards, he argues. “If you want that, go to Tampa or Orlando,” he says.

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