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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 9:21 am | Fair 56º


Rich Ehisen: California, Other States Step Up Battle to End Modern-Day Slave Trade

Safe Harbors legislation gains ground with realization that human trafficking is flourishing in America

To many Americans, slavery is nothing more than a dark scar on our past that died out along with the antebellum South. But for state legislators, the effort to end slavery is anything but a relic of a bygone era. Almost exactly 158 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the State Department says the business of trafficking in human beings is alive and well in America, and legislators are considering a variety of measures to stop it and to help its victims.

Rich Ehisen
Rich Ehisen

Data on human trafficking can be bit sketchy, but the State Department estimates the practice has become a $32 billion global industry, with more than 12 million people worldwide currently held in some form of servitude. While much of that trade occurs in other nations, the State Department says that up to 17,500 of those people end up in the United States annually, often locked away in grimy sweat shops, on farms or in the sex trade.

Many come along willingly at first, believing they are taking legitimate jobs that will give them a better way of life. Only later do they discover they are really being forced into working grueling hours, usually without pay and with no ability to quit. Trapped in a strange country where they often do not speak the language, with no money, documentation or resources with which to extricate themselves — and often facing the real threat of violence or death if they try to run — victims are left with no recourse but to suffer in silence. Sometimes traffickers also have others means of coercion, such as a hold on victims’ family members.

But many of the slave trade’s victims are not imported from other countries. U.S.-born runaways or otherwise homeless teens are particularly vulnerable to pimps and other predators who coerce them into the commercial sex trade as strippers, erotic escorts or street-level prostitutes. Speaking at a National Conference of State Legislatures seminar in July, Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, noted that the typical entry age for female prostitutes is 12 to 14, while the average age for boys forced into the profession is 11 to 13.

“Kids are truly the slaves of the 21st century. They’re a commodity,” said Allen, noting that his organization believes that as many as 100,000 children in the United States are coerced into prostitution each year. Even that figure could be low, Allen said, citing a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study that indicated as many as 293,000 American youths are at risk of being sexually exploited every year.

Although the State Department has issued an annual report on human trafficking for 10 years, the most recent report, released in June, is the first to include the United States in its ranking of government efforts around the world to stop the practice. The report also acknowledged for the first time that the United States has become “a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor, debt bondage and forced prostitution.”

States, for the most part, have only recently taken on the task of combating human trafficking, although almost all now have at least some laws against the practice. According to the Washington-based Polaris Project, which advocates for anti-trafficking laws around the world, all but a half-dozen states — Hawaii, Massachusetts, Ohio, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — have at least one statute barring human trafficking. NCSL notes that most of the statutes are fairly new, with the vast majority coming only in the last few years.

Human trafficking has remained a hot topic this year. According to State Net, legislators in 37 states and the District of Columbia considered more than 250 bills dealing with the issue this session, with more than 70 of those enacted. The bulk of these measures are similar to most other current state laws in that they criminalize the most common human-trafficking practices, primarily coerced sexual exploitation, forced domestic servitude and factory labor.

But in recent years, some states have taken slightly different tacks in their approach to the problem. This year, legislatures in California, Connecticut, Illinois and Washington approved bills that mimic New York’s Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act (AB 5258/SB 3175), which Gov. David Paterson signed into law in 2008. That legislation is based on the view that minors arrested for prostitution should be treated as victims of sexual exploitation rather than juvenile delinquents deserving of jail time. Instead, nonrepeat offenders are sent to publicly funded “safe houses” and given access to medical and psychological services meant to help them return to a more normal life.

To date, three of the 2010 measures have been signed into law. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell signed her state’s bill, SB 153, in June while Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed SB 6476 in April. In July, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1279, which implements a similar pilot program in Los Angeles County, which has a population of almost 10 million. That bill is modeled after another measure Schwarzenegger signed in 2008, AB 499, which enacted the same policy in much smaller Alameda County (population around 1.5 million).

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has not yet acted on HB 6462, which he received in June. He has about one more week to sign or veto the bill before it becomes law without his endorsement.

Florida was the only other state to consider Safe Harbor bills in 2010. Both of its measures, SB 1700 and HB 535, died earlier this year in committee.

The Texas Supreme Court has also weighed in, ruling in June that since state law stipulates that minors under age 14 cannot legally understand the significance of agreeing to sex, they also cannot be prosecuted as prostitutes. Rather, the court said, they must be treated as victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Julie Janovsky, a spokeswoman for the Polaris Project, says most legislators have been supportive of the Safe Harbor proposals, although she notes that some have argued for making 16 the age cutoff. But, as with so many other issues at the moment, the real challenge is rooted in dollars and cents.

“State budgets are easily the greatest challenge right now,” she said. “These kids have very specialized needs, and a lot of states don’t have the resources right now to pay for that care.”

It isn’t just kids, either. Several states offer significant assistance to all victims of human trafficking, including state-funded public health care and other services. To help pay for it, six states — California, Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Oklahoma and Virginia — adopted laws in 2010 that implement or expand the use of fines and asset forfeiture against traffickers, with generated funds used to help pay for victim care. In all, 17 states now have trafficking-related forfeiture laws.

States have also adopted measures that place more of the onus on businesses to help reduce the problem. A 2007 Texas law, HB 1751, imposes a tax on sexually oriented businesses, with funds going toward prosecution and trafficking-related victims’ services. Texas is also one of fives states that now require certain businesses and other entities — mostly hotels, truck stops and bars or restaurants that sell liquor — to post signs with information on human trafficking and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline number (1.888.373.7888 toll-free).

Some legislators are considering measures that would place even more pressure on companies to deal directly with the issue. In California, SB 657, sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would require companies with gross revenues over $100 million annually to post on their Web sites what steps, if any, they are taking to ensure their supply chains are free of slavery and human trafficking. The bill has drawn opposition from numerous business interests, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which contends it will force Golden State businesses to become “the enforcement arm for federal and state laws regarding slavery and human trafficking.” The bill cleared the Senate in January and is now close to approval in the Assembly.

Meanwhile, legislation is pending in New York (AB 470/SB 6180) that would require every state vendor to provide the hiring agency with a statement attesting that “no foreign-made equipment, materials or supplies given to the state for the contract have been produced in whole or in part by forced labor or indentured servitude.”

With the attention now being focused on human trafficking and slavery, most observers expect more state and federal legislation in 2011, particularly as police and others become better trained in spotting signs of it. The Polaris Project’s Janovsky says she is aware of at least six states — Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas — that will introduce Safe Harbor laws next year.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also made it clear in her comments surrounding the release of the State Department’s “2010 Trafficking in Humans” report in July that she expects more response from lawmakers at all levels of government in the United States.

“This report sends a clear message to all of our countrymen and women: Human trafficking is not someone else’s problem,” she said. “Involuntary servitude is not something we can ignore or hope doesn’t exist in our own community.”

— Rich Ehisen is editor of State Net Capitol Journal, where he provides expert coverage of state-level public policy and legislative trends in all 50 states. He is also an award-winning journalist who has written exhaustively on such issues as immigration, California water policy, education and many others. This column is republished with permission from State Net Capitol Journal.

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