Under the Radar: Proposed state law targets sex slavery crimes | News | dailyitem.com


EDITOR’S NOTE: There have been 82 bills signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this legislative session, but that’s just a fraction of the hundreds of bills introduced by lawmakers. In this continuing series, we take a look at some of the noteworthy pieces of legislation that haven’t gotten much attention statewide.

HARRISBURG — Legislation just introduced in the state House would tackle a key problem identified by advocates seeking to improve the way human trafficking cases are prosecuted: Too often, the exploited victim is arrested while the customers who create the demand for the illegal services go free.

Traditionally, 4-in-5 arrests related to human trafficking involve putting the victims being exploited behind bars rather than the customer, said Shea M. Rhodes, Co-Founder and Director of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at the Villanova University School of Law.

By doing that, “they are not targeting the market” that creates the demand for the human trafficking in the first place, said Rhodes.

Globally, advocates estimate that just over half of victims of human trafficking are being used for sex work, according to the advocacy group Equality Now.

But in the U.S., the percentage tied to the sex trade is higher. A U.S. Department of Justice study of human trafficking investigations found that about 80 percent involved sexual exploitation.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, in January introduced legislation to crack down on sex slavery in the state. His House Bill 2029 was referred to the judiciary committee.

“Human trafficking robs the victim of their basic human rights and dignity. Those who profit off this detestable trade should face the full force of the law,” Grove said. “Human trafficking is, sadly, found in all corners of the Commonwealth, including York County where two men were recently arrested, accused of luring women into prostitution and using violence, drugs and threats to prevent them from leaving.”

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 152 potential cases of human trafficking were reported in Pennsylvania in 2016.

Grove’s legislation. House Bill 2029, would increase the penalty for trafficking an individual into sex slavery from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony. Likewise, an individual who patronizes a victim of sexual trafficking would now face a first-degree felony. A first-degree felony conviction can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Additionally, patrons of victims of sexual trafficking would face an increased fine from $500 to between $1,000 and $30,000 at the discretion of the court. If the victim is a minor at the time of the offense, the fine would be increased to a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $100,000. The legislation also requires an individual who patronizes a victim of sex trafficking to register as a sex offender.

Rhodes said Grove’s bill takes the right approach by trying to increase penalties to discourage people from becoming customers to provide the market for human trafficking.

Those involved in human trafficking are involved in the crime “to make money. That’s it,” she said. “The commodity is a human being and there is a market for sex.”

Increasingly, human traffickers are coercing their victims into the sex trade by providing them with opioids or heroin to control them, she said.

The customers who then buy the sexual favors are taking advantage of “someone who is suffering from drug dependency,” Rhodes said. “That’s terrible.”

Increasingly, victims are being exploited in the community through solicitations advertised online, she said.

The state passed a comprehensive law aimed at human trafficking in 2014.

Before that law took effect, the state had only prosecuted one person for human trafficking, according to a memo by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, RMontgomery County, in seeking support for the measure.

With the 2014 law in place, there have been at least 32 people convicted of crimes tied to human trafficking in the state, Rhodes said.

Even so, advocates have been looking to get that 2014 measure updated, she said. Grove’s legislation is on the right track, she said.

Concern about human trafficking and its reach into Pennsylvania has spurred advocacy groups across the state – including groups in Cambria, Lawrence and Union counties — to begin trying to raise awareness of the issue.

One of the organizations that’s taken on the cause is Soroptimist International, said Diane Savidge of Middleburg, a district director for the Soroptimist club.

The club focuses on issues important to women and girls, so the effort to combat human trafficking was a natural one to join, Savidge said.

Like Rhodes, she said that there needs to be more emphasis placed on discouraging people from paying for sex to diminish the profitability of human trafficking.

Victims of human trafficking “are emotionally and physically abused. They don’t need to be taken to jail, they need serious help,” Savidge said.

John Finnerty is the statehouse reporter for CNHI, the parent company of The Daily Item. Email comments to jfinnerty@cnhi.com. Follow Finnerty on Twitter @cnhipa.