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Officials Fight for Human Trafficking Victims

January 30, 2012

By Ryan Murphy
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bipartisan coalition, including legislators and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, urged the General Assembly on Monday to increase penalties for human trafficking in general and underage sex trafficking in particular.

“Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing, if not the fastest growing, criminal activities in the country,” Cuccinelli said. “We’re here today to try to strengthen Virginia’s human trafficking laws so we can try to put an end to these types of tragedies.”

Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli speaks on Human Trafficking in Virginia. (CNS Photo by Ryan Murphy)

“One of the hardest aspects of the problem is identifying what it is,” Cuccinelli said, noting that law enforcement officers can mistake sex trafficking for “common prostitution.”

He said officers across Virginia must be trained to know what to look for, a process that he said could take five or even 10 years.

Holly Austin Smith, who was the victim of sex trafficking when she was 14, was on hand to thank the officials and offer her own experiences for consideration.

“The man who lured [me] into running away and then trafficked and raped [me] ended up serving 365 days in jail,” said Smith, now a marine biologist in Virginia.

Smith, who was forced into child prostitution in Atlantic City, N.J., has become a leading advocate for human trafficking victims by sharing her 1992 ordeal. She has been urging states to address the problem.

The Virginia General Assembly is considering several bills to do that. One is House Bill 1074, sponsored by Delegate Timothy Hugo, R-Centreville, and Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Bumpass.

HB 1074 would make solicitation of a minor either a Class 6 or 5 felony, based on whether the minor was older or younger than 16 years old at the time. Currently, the offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Cuccinelli highlighted an aspect of trafficking that has been a hot topic in law enforcement for years: gang activity.

“MS 13 … is probably the worst gang we’ve got in Virginia,” he said. “They have done a cost-benefit analysis and found that sex trafficking of minors is lower risk for higher money than pushing drugs.”

The attorney general noted that it’s not just immigrants and illegal residents being trafficked. “[Gangs] are dabbling in the people who are born here and grow up here as well,” he said.

Virginia was named by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking, as one of the most improved states in 2010 in regards to laws and penalties regulating human trafficking.

According to Polaris, Virginia statutes fulfill five of the 10 categories believed critical to a comprehensive anti-trafficking system. Legislation filed for this session of the General Assembly would help fulfill more of those categories.

Besides HB 1074, legislators have introduced:

   – HB 546, which would mandate harsher punishments for gang-related offenses.

   – HB 1200, which would require that the toll-free phone number for the National
     Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-3737-888) be posted in businesses that
     provide adult entertainment.

   – HB 1188 and Senate Bill 259, which would train Virginia Department of Education
     personnel to help them better identify trafficking victims.

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