As legislators from all parts of Missouri convened in Jefferson City for the second week of the 2011 session, many took the opportunity to file bills to address issues facing our state. With over 300 bills filed so far between the House and the Senate, the topics are as diverse as the legislators themselves. However, among a number of important issues, one seems especially noteworthy to discuss – the unpleasant reality of human trafficking.
Press reports tell us that the belief that human trafficking is mostly an issue somewhere else (such as on the nation’s heavily populated coastal areas) is simply not true. Instances of trafficking are becoming far too commonplace here in the Midwest.
Although the stories are all different, they typically involve traffickers finding and coercing others into lives as prostitutes, domestic servants, low-paid laborers or other forms of involuntary servitude. The number of people bound up in this underground criminal racket is staggering. One report estimates well over 100,000 have been brought into the United States in the past few years. When legal residents are included, the total may be far higher.
One of the main difficulties with combating the scourge of human trafficking is simply identifying the victims. To the casual observer, or even to many in the law enforcement community, these victims may appear to be legitimate workers or even relatively low-level criminals. Only with proper training does it become clear that many have been coerced into a life of involuntary servitude.
In the past, combating this problem has been primarily undertaken by the federal government but states such as Missouri are stepping forward to take a more active role. This session legislation has been filed that seeks to expand the definition of human trafficking to include criminals who coerce an unwilling party to do their bidding by use of blackmail or by threatening financial harm. The proposal also specifically outlaws using any such person in the production of sexual material and casts a wider net to include all those who benefit financially from human trafficking. In addition to jail time, the bill would also require that traffickers pay their victims a minimum amount of $100,000 in restitution and authorizes state agencies to develop programs to train law enforcement personnel and other state officials to detect victims of sexual trafficking.
As the session gets underway I look forward to the opportunity to update Missouri’s human trafficking statute and to give law enforcement better tools to fight this horrible crime.