States Combat Human Trafficking with Victim-Focused Legislation

During The Council of State Governments’ eCademy webcast, “Human Trafficking—How States are Responding,” panelists discussed legislation, task forces and funding to combat human trafficking at the state level.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which people, often children, are forced into sex work or other labor. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that works to combat human trafficking, estimates that the number of adults and children being forced into labor in the United States numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

The Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan organization that drafts sample legislation on issues where uniformity across states lines is desirable, completed a two-year drafting project focused on preventing and remedying human trafficking.  

“The American Bar Association came to us in 2011 in cooperation with LexusNexus and really was focused on the need at the state level to update and modernize laws dealing with human trafficking,” said Anita Ramasastry, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who co-chaired the drafting process. “I think there has been a greater awareness of the magnitude of the problem here in the United States—and also focus on the need for harmony. Uniform law in this area would allow for law enforcement to cooperate more proactively, but also would mean that criminals wouldn’t be able to look for and operate in jurisdictions that had laxer laws.”

The commission discovered during the drafting process that many states had existing laws that addressed human trafficking, but they varied greatly. They drafted a comprehensive law including penalties, protections for victims, and public awareness and coordination, which states can use as a model to fill in holes in their existing laws.

“More states had something on the books dealing with criminal law, but in the area of labor trafficking—where I think there is a bigger focus now in addition to sex trafficking—is an area where there was greater disparity,” said Ramasastry. “So we created a statute that not only has penalties for sex trafficking but has penalties for labor trafficking as well. It is a unified statute that gives prosecutors tools across the board.”

Ramasastry said the commission’s research showed that traditional criminal definitions of coercion hadn’t been updated to reflect what is known about the how traffickers force their victims into labor.

“We have a broader definition of coercion that includes, for example, providing people with controlled substances and getting them addicted as a means of getting them involved with trafficking, and also the issue, which has happened in a variety of states, of abuse of individuals who, because of a mental impairment or disability, wouldn’t have the capacity to consent,” she said.

The second part of the law—victims’ protections—is more novel. There is a greater need for states to adopt this type of legislation, and it is where they’ve seen the greatest movement among states, said Ramasastry. 
“In addition to criminal prosecution, there’d be a parallel set of victim-centered provisions that focused on things like confidentiality to provide safe and secure means for law enforcement to cooperate with victims,” she said.

The law includes certain types of immunity for minors who may be trafficking victims, an affirmative defense for victims of trafficking arrested for prostitution and a right of civil action against traffickers.

The public awareness and coordination section of the law focuses on providing states with a blueprint for coordination among different state agencies, including creating a human trafficking council, organizing public awareness campaigns, and funding grants to victims’ services agencies.

States can use the commission’s law as needed to meet their own needs and challenges. Delaware, for example, used the entire act and enacted it wholesale, said Ramasastry, while other states adopted only parts of the act to fill in holes in their laws.

“We are able to work with states to identify their existing laws and give them comparison charts to say, ‘Where do you already have existing provisions in your legislation and what’s missing?’” she said.

Ramasastry said state action is needed in this area because although federal law does cover much of trafficking, federal law enforcement often needs states’ help to respond in the most effective way.

“It is just a matter of capacity,” she said. “As you see in many criminal areas—drug crime being one—there is federal law and state law, but the magnitude of the problem is such that the feds want that state cooperation as well.”

Minnesota has been proactive in combatting human trafficking since it enacted its first anti-trafficking statute in 2005, said Minnesota state Sen. Julie Rosen.

Minnesota created a statewide director of child sex trafficking prevention at the Department of Health and six regional navigators to connect sexually exploited youth throughout the state with shelters, support and services. The state also funds safe housing for victims.

The state’s “No Wrong Door” service model makes resources and services available for sexually exploited youth, including the regional navigators who look for appropriate, safe housing and mental health services. Rosen said the housing aspect of the model is key because victims can be exploited anywhere—including traditional shelters.

The legislature also funded training for law enforcement, prosecutors and others on recognizing and responding to human trafficking, and compensates local law enforcement for sending officers to training.

Rosen said a better protocol for law enforcement is needed for officers dealing with victims or potential victims of human trafficking, including using the technology used in telemedicine as a means to efficiently train law enforcement in resource-strapped departments.

“When you come across a child…that you think has been exploited, what do you do? A lot of law enforcement, in all areas of the state, have not had that training,” she said.

The full webcast is available in the CSG Knowledge Center.