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Cracking Down on Sex Trafficking

WE ARE at the “end of the beginning” of raising public awareness on modern slavery and sex trafficking, according to Ambassador John R. Miller, senior human trafficking advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Miller recently participated in a panel discussion of best practices in the prevention and prosecution of sex trafficking. The panel was sponsored by the Government Innovators Network at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Although awareness of the problem has increased, Miller admits that there is still a long way to go in figuring out the best ways to curb human trafficking and sex slavery. The problem is prevalent not just abroad but also in the United States.

The U.S. State Department has estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders for forced labor and sex worldwide each year, and 80 percent of them are female. That doesn’t include sextrade victims kept within borders.

Panel member Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) cited statistics that found that one out of three children who run away from home will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home, and the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.

Demand among the buyers in this human market is the most critical problem, according to panel member Mohamed Mattar, executive director of The Protection Project at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. One solution is to ramp up the prosecution of “johns,” or those who purchase sexual services from children or prostitutes.

Former congresswoman Linda Smith (R-WA) is the founder of Vancouver, Washington- based Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing women who are sex trafficking victims. Smith says that arrests of children and pimps are high in two of 10 U.S. states assessed by Shared Hope on behalf of the Department of Justice. Despite those enforcement efforts, demand for the illegal services remain high.

Smith adds that while children and adult prostitutes are often arrested and convicted, the pimps and johns are more likely to go free, often because the victims are too afraid to testify against them.

Shared Hope cites a study that illustrated the way the law treats the users versus the prostitutes: In Boston, for example, for every 11 women arrested for sex acts, only one man is arrested; it’s nine to one in Chicago, and six to one in New York City.

Maloney and others have tried to address these issues in H.R. 3887, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2007, which authorizes appropriations to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that made human trafficking a federal crime in the United States. H.R. 3887 attempts to move from a largely prevention-based model to a prosecution-based one, according to Mattar.

Among other provisions, the bill stipulates that a person can be prosecuted for sex trafficking without proof of force or coercion. The removal of proof of force and coercion as a prerequisite to prosecution will decrease the need for people to testify against the pimps and traffickers, says Maloney.

The bill passed in the House last fall by the wide margin of 405 to 2, but the Senate has yet to take it up.

The bill is not without detractors. The Justice Department has released a statement that finds fault with several aspects of the bill. For example, it objects to the provision making all “pimping, pandering, and other prostitution-related offenses” federal crimes regardless of proof of force or coercion, arguing that doing so would divert federal attention from the cases that do involve force or child victims. It also says that the states are better able to deal with adult prostitution.

“I guess that protecting powerless girls and women, especially when most people consider them to be the criminals, is not a very high priority,” said Maloney at the panel discussion.

Maloney’s concern is that Congress will reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (which expires this year) without strengthening it by adding the provisions put forth in H.R. 3887.

Maloney is looking for other ways of going after sex traffickers as well. For example, she sponsored H.R. 3424, which aims to prosecute sex traffickers for violations of tax laws. “Just like we got Al Capone finally on tax concerns,” she says, “that’s how you can break a lot of these [sex] tourism and pimping establishments.”

The future of H.R. 3424 is unknown. The bill was still in committee at press time.