By Brianna Vitands
Murphy News Service
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has proposed a bipartisan bill modeled after Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, which protects sexually exploited minors from being criminally prosecuted and ensures they are treated as victims.
“Safe Harbor passed in Minnesota in 2011 but it did not get implemented until 2014,” said Lauren Ryan, director of Minnesota Safe Harbor and No Wrong Door. “The legislators did that intentionally because they gave a mandate and said, we want to have this law, we want to decriminalize prostitution for youth, but we want to make sure that there’s services in place to help them.”
A study released by Polaris through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) revealed that in 2014, 5,167 cases of human trafficking were reported in the United States to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) and Polaris.
On average, girls and boys exploited for sex are between 12 and 14, and are often runaways or part of other government systems including foster care or child protective services. In states without Safe Harbor laws, these minors can be charged as a delinquent.
“If a behavior is criminalized, a person under 18 who is charged isn’t actually arrested or charged for something like prostitution, but they may be adjudicated a delinquent because of this,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights.
Klobuchar, a Democrat, introduced the bill with Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which is called The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT). In addition to protecting exploited minors, it will strengthen the National Human Trafficking Hotline by ensuring it is backed by the law and tantamount with other national hotlines that serve victims.
“One of the main goals of SETT is to make sure there is adequate funding for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and the act will provide grants to help,” McKenzie said, adding that the hotline is an essential and very effective tool for law enforcement and advocates.
“This new data provides fresh evidence that human trafficking is not just a problem plaguing countries half a world away-it’s happening in our own backyard,” Klobuchar said in a press release. “We need to do more to ensure that victims of sex trafficking are supported, not thrown behind bars.”
SETT aims to increase cooperation between federal, state, local, and tribal agencies and promote better data sharing between law enforcement agencies, establishing a national strategy to combat human trafficking. It will also allow victims to participate in the Job Corps program which offers job training and skill building programs designed to empower sex trafficking victims. The bill also helps victims pursue financial restitution by offering better reparation tracking so that victims can actually collect what they are owed.
“We don’t want this revolving door where they get picked up by law enforcement and there’s no place to go, no services to help them, and then you put them in the exact same position as when you picked them up from off the street,” Ryan said.
Only 10 states have safe harbor laws which protect minors from being convicted under the state’s criminal laws, and instead steers exploited youth towards services that can help them.
“It’s absolutely a good idea, there’s no way these kids should be charged with anything and treated like a criminal,” Ryan said. “They’re kids, and they shouldn’t be allowed to make these decisions regarding whether they sell their bodies or not.”
Polaris conducts an annual study rating all states based on 10 categories of laws which are crucial to the framework that combats human trafficking, including punishing perpetrators and supporting victims. Data from 2014 indicated that 37 states passed new laws to combat human trafficking in the last year.
“Minnesota is pretty fortunate, we have a strong statewide hotline,” Ryan said. “We use the Day One hotline and the statewide sexual assault hotline, and now they’ve incorporated trafficking both of adults and minors into their protocols so that they can respond to it.”
Still, the 2012 Human Trafficking in Minnesota Report to the Minnesota Legislature found that there were 93 juvenile sex trafficking victims in Minnesota.
“This study is considered accurate but limited because it was informed by what was charged and prosecuted,” McKenzie said. “We see low numbers, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg and not indicative of the full scope of the problem since it’s such an underreported crime.”
Reporter Brianna Vitands is studying journalism and Spanish at the University of Minnesota