With more than 1,200 reported cases of trafficking in the state over the last 13 years, state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told a crowd gathered at the Ryan Rotunda in the Capitol Complex that it’s a crisis issue for the state.
According to Insider Monkey, Pennsylvania ranked 10th nationally with 127 cases reported in 2017. The site also noted that Pittsburgh ranked 10th as well among all U.S. cities. In most cases, victims of human trafficking endure sexual violence and exploitation.
“This package of legislation addresses many issues,” said Cutler, the House majority leader. “We must see the urgent need to step up efforts to combat trafficking as part of the wider battle for human rights. We need to create a culture where people no longer stay silent about the abuse they are suffering and where the legal systems take such violence seriously.”
In all, the package includes six House bills, a Senate bill and a House resolution, the latter of which would recognize January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
In addition to aiding victims of trafficking, some of the bills also stiffen penalties for those convicted of trafficking. For example, state Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, sponsors House Bill 161, which would make the trafficking of infants a first-degree felony. State Sen. Kristen Phillips-Hill sponsors Senate Bill 60, which would increase penalties for those convicted of trafficking and patronizing a victim of sexual servitude. Those offenses, too, would become first-degree felonies.
Another bill, House Bill 2175 sponsored by state Rep. Meghan Schroeder, R-Bucks, would expand the list of offenses where prosecutors could call an expert witness to inform juries about sexual violence and how trafficking victims may respond to violent acts. Meanwhile, House Bill 2174 sponsored by state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, would keep defendants from using a trafficking victim’s past as evidence in their defense from prosecution.
Mary Quinn, the president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, said her agency has helped nearly 300 trafficking victims over the last five-plus years. Through that work, she said, she’s realized those victims suffered from complex trauma and need special resources. By pushing these bills through the Legislature, she hopes it can help bring more resources to the victims.
In some cases, the victims themselves find themselves being prosecuted. York County District Attorney Dave Sunday noted a drug death case where his office initially prosecuted a young woman who handed the victim the lethal dose. However, in working with the defense attorney and advocates, they soon realized the defendant in the case was being exploited and kept from her family in New Jersey.
Jennifer Storm, the state’s victims advocate, said cases like the one Sunday discussed show that previous efforts have worked in helping identify victims. However, more work remains to be done.
“We’re here to craft a more trauma-informed justice system,” she said.