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Editorial: Lawmakers make progress in the fight against human trafficking

Editorial: Lawmakers make progress in the fight against human trafficking

More than 2,500 children are exploited for commercial sexual activity in New York each year

If New York state lawmakers go home for the summer without accomplishing another important thing, which is highly likely, they can at least claim to have helped bring sex traffickers to justice.

That’s no small accomplishment, and it should be applauded. But there’s even more they could do.

Let’s start with the positive, actually a big positive.

Human trafficking is a $32 billion business involving thousands of victims. More than 2,500 children are exploited for commercial sexual activity in New York each year, according to statistics from 2012. The numbers are likely much higher now.

Under existing state law, prosecutors must prove that a person engaged in sex trafficking used force, fraud or coercion to entice a victim into committing sex acts, even if the victim is a child.

Frustrated district attorneys have cited numerous cases in which victims in their early teens or younger were convinced to engage in prostitution through manipulation and coercion by older men. These children aren’t even old enough to legally consent to sex. But the people who trade and sell them like chattel to other men can’t be prosecuted unless they’ve physically threatened these children into performing sex acts.

District attorneys have said they’ve seen cases where, for instance, a 14- or 15-year-old girl has convinced herself that she’s in love with her 40-year-old “boyfriend” and would do anything to please him, including performing deviant sex acts for money with strangers.

But under state law (unlike federal law), if the prosecutors can’t prove the victims were physically threatened into performing the sex acts, there’s nothing they could do to the perpetrators. 

That could be about to change.

The Assembly on Friday joined the Senate in finally passing a critical bill (A6823/S5988) that will make it easier for prosecutors to convict sex traffickers by no longer requiring them to prove the elements of force, fraud or coercion in cases where children under age 18 are victimized by sex trafficking.

The bill makes it clear that anyone under age 18 who engages in commercial sex is considered a victim of sex trafficking. The bill also stipulates that defendants can’t claim they were unaware that their victims were minors, a common defense.

The charge of sex trafficking of a child would be a Class B felony, which could bring a hefty prison sentence of from three to 25 years.

The one negative issue with this law is that it only applies to sex traffickers age 21 or older. Why should there be a cutoff for the age of the perpetrator?

Individuals can be prosecuted as adults for other crimes when they’re as young as 16. But if you’re a sex trafficker, you have to be 21 to face consequences?

A likely outcome of this is that older sex traffickers may recruit younger “pimps” to engage the younger victims in order to avoid prosecution.

This new tool for prosecutors is too important for the age-21 issue to become a deal-breaker when the bill goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

But this loophole needs to be closed in the near future.

So this is a rightful piece of legislation for which legislators should be proud.

But even though the Legislature has strengthened protections for victims and gotten tougher on perpetrators, there’s still much they could do.

For instance, one bill pending in the Assembly (A3223) would assure that victims of sex trafficking be promptly eligible for placement in short-term and long-term rehabilitation safe houses, where they can not only receive counseling and drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation, but also life skills, job training and other services to help them transition into the community. Remember, a lot of these victims are kids who have been involved in the trade for much of their formative years, and many are still charged with crimes, even if they are victims. Allowing these individuals to be identified as sex-trafficking victims will speed up their eligibility for this necessary housing and assistance.

Another bill (A10425B/S8874) would require lodging facilities like hotels and motels to prominently display information cards in rooms, bathrooms and common areas concerning services for human trafficking victims. The reason for this is that places that cater to transient populations are often where human traffickers either conduct their business or temporarily house their victims before taking them to another location. The victims themselves, or lodging guests who witness suspicious activity, could take these cards and either call the hot-line number provided or use the information to otherwise alert law enforcement.

The bill has passed the Assembly and could still make it through this session.

Another bill (A9870/S7836) would to allow judges to move prostitution cases pending in local criminal courts to another local criminal court in the same county that has been established as a human trafficking court. These human trafficking courts, of which there are several around the state, are much like drug courts, in that they link victims of human trafficking and commercial sex trafficking to services such as counseling, job training, education, housing and substance abuse treatment. This expansion will allow more victims to get the treatment they need.

We’re encouraged by the progress made in New York on addressing human trafficking and sex trafficking, especially in the area of prosecution and in addressing the needs of victims.

But this is a big problem that requires more legislative action. Don’t stop now. 

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