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House approves bill on human trafficking

Teen prostitutes would be shifted into treatment

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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The arrest of a Dorchester man last month on charges that he kidnapped a 15-year-old girl and forced her into prostitution highlights a problem that has been addressed more aggressively in all but a handful of other states: human trafficking.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a bill that would have the state join 46 others in banning human trafficking.

The bill calls for treating some minors who are arrested for prostitution as victims instead of criminals. It would also authorize judges to enhance sentencing for pimps and others who coerce people into prostitution, and it would also enhance penalties for johns, from a maximum of one year in jail to 2 1/2 years.

The Senate, which has passed a similar bill twice before, is expected to do so again this year.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has pushed for changes in the law, said it represents a shift in how police and prosecutors approach prostitution.

“The person who’s being sold — that’s where our focus has been,’’ she said. “The system’s focus was on [treating] them as defendants.’’

The new bill would instead put the spotlight on a network of people who coerce and transport girls, women — and occasionally boys — into that life. Those convicted twice of sex trafficking would face a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison.

Coakley has testified that human trafficking is the second largest and the fastest growing, criminal enterprise in the world. But she and others say they do not have reliable statistics showing how widespread the problem is in Massachusetts. The bill approved yesterday would allow prosecutors to do a better job of documenting its extent, requiring more coordinated enforcement efforts and sharing of information.

The attorney general said prostitutes often enter the sex trade between the ages of 12 and 14 and are often prevented from leaving through violence, rape, abuse, drug addiction, or threat.

In an attempt to help more prostitutes escape and rehabilitate, the bill would divert many girls under the age of 18 into child service programs, instead of delinquency court, after they are arrested.

Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, said he plans to push for more services for victims of trafficking when the bill is debated in the Senate.

“The victims are destroyed; their sprits are destroyed,’’ said Montigny, who has been trying to get a bill passed for six years. “If you don’t do a significant victim support piece, then you haven’t solved the problem.’’

The trafficking problem, officials say, largely takes place without much public attention.

“I was a little suspicious of the extent of it that was actually taking place here in the Commonwealth,’’ said Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who sponsored the House bill. “But I was persuaded by facts how commonplace this activity actually is.’’

Those who advocate changing the law say the human trafficking problem in Massachusetts is more likely to involve smaller bands of domestic groups than larger international slave trading. But the law would apply to that practice, as well. The federal government has laws against human trafficking, but often lacks resources to go after smaller offenders. Prosecutors say a state law would make it easier to build cases that would fill in those enforcement gaps.

“Here we have in the 21st century in Massachusetts practices that any one of us would say should be outlawed,’’ O’Flaherty said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.