Oklahoma, other states consider anti-trafficking laws
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The grisly discovery of a 19-year-old woman's butchered body stuffed inside a duffel bag has helped push human trafficking into the spotlight at the Oklahoma Legislature.
At least six trafficking-related proposals are up for consideration by state legislators this year, and 37 other states are looking at more than 200 more, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit advocacy group and policy tracker.
The proposals are the latest pieces of a years-long battle against an international, multibillion-dollar trafficking industry that has 27 million victims worldwide - including unknown thousands in the United States - in agriculture, domestic work, manufacturing and sex, according to U.S. State Department estimates.
Wyoming would be the 50th state to outlaw the exploitation of children, men and women for forced labor and commercial sex. Oklahoma, Nebraska and other states are looking at bills to protect minors trafficked for sex from criminal charges. Another bill in New York calls for elementary schools to teach their students how to prevent abduction and sexual abuse.
The states and federal government have together enacted almost 200 statutes - mostly in the past two years - to punish traffickers and protect their victims, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
"I think interest got really high in the issue a couple years back, and it sort of stayed there," said Rich Williams, an NCSL criminal policy analyst. "It's just an evolving thing."
States often have begun to act after law enforcement uncovered trafficking within their borders. For Oklahoma, the push was prompted in part by the discovery of Carina Saunders' dismembered body in a duffel bag behind a grocery store in 2011, a killing investigators have alleged was meant to be a warning to other sex trafficking victims in the area. For Wyoming, it was two recent federal trafficking prosecutions, said state Rep. Cathy Connolly, a sponsor of that state's criminalization bill.
"In Wyoming, we somewhat pride ourselves in having the lean and mean approach to law," Connolly said. "A benefit of being the last state to pass this legislation is that we've learned from what they've done and haven't done."
Advocates, legislators and other officials in Oklahoma and elsewhere said it has been a decade of awakening - and trial and error.
"We're all, I think, learning still more and more about it," said Oklahoma State Rep. Pam Peterson, who sponsored a bill designed to aid human trafficking investigations by the state's Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
For example, Wyoming's proposed legislation includes several provisions providing protection and services to victims, a shift in focus that has only recently shown itself among the states.
"We now understand that trafficking victims are not at fault and we should be seeing them as crime victims," Mary Ellison, the Polaris Project's policy director, said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. She said many states have been using the model legislation along these lines provided by the group.
Victims' services cost states money, however, and legislators are not always eager to embrace proposals that may ease penalties for law breakers, even those who are victims.
Such questions came up at a hearing last Tuesday in Oklahoma's House Judiciary Committee on a bill that would shield 16- and 17-year-old sex trafficking victims from prostitution charges.
"You're tying the hands of the prosecutor to never be allowed to charge prostitution in this case," committee member Rep. Scott Biggs told the bill's sponsor, Rep. Lee Denney. Biggs suggested some sort of trigger, some burden of evidence on the part of the teenagers to show they were trafficked.
Denney said she opposed locking up victims.
"They have a whole host of problems that we're going to have to deal with as a society. And I am against locking up, and putting these heinous crimes on, our children," she said.
Both sides' concerns can be balanced, said Darrell Weaver, director of Oklahoma's narcotics bureau.
"I'm an enforcement guy, but I also believe we almost have to have a comprehensive approach sometimes," Weaver said. "If you have been thrust into criminal behavior with something as hideous as human trafficking, we have to use some good common sense and realize the balance needs to go toward those victims."
Despite the nation's lengthening list of trafficking laws, still more work remains to be done, advocates say, particularly in consistency, focus and enforcement. Only about 20 states have actually used their new laws, Ellison said.
"That's really where the rubber hits the road," she said. "Until the laws are used to protect victims and prosecute traffickers, they're really just a piece of paper."
Copyright 2013, The Associated Press