Human trafficking bill stops short
SENATE PRESIDENT Therese Murray stood before grieving parents of missing children gathered at the State House last month and issued a heartfelt vow: “God, we will pass that human trafficking bill.’’ It was an emotional moment, and with good reason. After years of being among a dwindling number of states with no separate criminal penalties for coerced sex or labor, Massachusetts is on the cusp of enacting a tough new law to stop the effective enslavement of thousands of vulnerable individuals, including far too many children.
But legislators shouldn’t congratulate themselves just yet. The bill that unanimously passed the Massachusetts House last week creates a new crime of trafficking in individuals for forced sex or labor, punishable by up to 15 years in prison — up to life in prison if the person trafficked is a minor. It’s a crucial tool to end the unspeakable practices happening all across the country: Immigrant women working 14-hour days in debt bondage under threat of beatings or deportation; runaway girls as young as 12 who are drugged, raped, imprisoned, and forced into sex acts in makeshift brothels.
But the House bill focuses hard on penalties for the criminals while stinting on help for the victims — almost always women and girls who are desperate, poor, abused, homeless, or addicted. In the coming weeks it will be up to the Senate to get the balance right.
“This isn’t just a law enforcement issue, it’s a human rights issue,’’ said Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford, who has filed legislation to combat human trafficking for the past six years, with mounting frustration. “We’ve now had the unfortunate luxury of seeing what’s worked or not in other states. If all we pass is a crime bill . . . we’re writing off thousands of women and juveniles every year.’’
The House bill, based on recommendations from Attorney General Martha Coakley, has one great political advantage: no additional cost. Instead of funding direct new services for victims, it sets up a 21-member task force to consider further steps beyond the criminal penalties. The proposed panel is top-heavy with law-enforcement and government representatives, and doesn’t include a seat designated specifically for a victim.
Montigny’s bill, which likely will be the template for debate in the Senate, sets up a separate trust fund that trafficking victims can access for legal help, health care, counseling, and interpreters, among other services. The House version allows assets seized during criminal proceedings against pimps or sweatshop operators to be paid in restitution to victims, but only at the discretion of a judge.
For too long, victims of the sex trade have been seen as part of the problem — over half the girls in juvenile detention facilities nationwide are there for prostitution offenses, even though many are below the legal age of consent. Fortunately, both bills have a “safe harbor’’ provision that presumes minors arrested for soliciting sex need help, and should not be prosecuted.
But doing no further harm to the victims isn’t enough, according to Abigail English, director of the national Center for Adolescent Health and Law. “The trend for them to return to this life and to be re-exploited is almost inevitable if they don’t receive the services that can redirect their lives on a different path,’’ she said. It’s a steep climb even with good support, because the average age of girls first engaging in prostitution is 13. Most know nothing but lives of violence and depredation.
So there is plenty of room for improvement in the bill. Still, the most enlightened criminal statutes won’t end human trafficking without a change in the culture. Too many Americans still believe that prostitution is a victimless crime, or even a lifestyle choice. Illegal immigrants and drug-involved teenagers are about the least sympathetic figures around. “There is a high degree of hostility toward young people perceived to be deviant,’’ said English. Who will declare that they deserve a big new share of public tax dollars?
After six years of dithering, momentum is cresting to pass a human trafficking bill in Massachusetts. But if the new law only addresses half the problem, too much time will have been lost. To say nothing of lost lives.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.