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Washington – U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen are among a coalition of congressional lawmakers honing their legislative efforts on an array of sex crimes like human trafficking and college campus assaults.
The efforts, almost all bipartisan, represent a far-reaching effort to combat sexual abuse.
The legislative focus comes amid a push by the White House to stem sexual assaults on college campuses and as House Republicans move ahead on a package of bills to address trafficking, the world's third-largest criminal enterprise, according to the FBI.
"As recently as four or five years ago, it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to this issue," said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy at Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based group that advocates for vulnerable children and families. "There was a lot of denial. The tide has turned."
As Congress heads into its pre-Election Day home stretch, lawmakers are hopeful that significant sex crime legislation will reach President Obama's desk this year. The chances are "very high," especially with trafficking legislation, Klobuchar said.
One of the bills being considered by Congress is a measure sponsored by Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Paulsen, a Republican. Modeled after Minnesota's soon-to-be-enacted "safe harbor" laws, the bill would require states to treat underage prostitutes as victims rather than as criminal defendants.
Part of a comprehensive package of sex trafficking bills that could be voted on in the House this month, the bill also would give victims access to protective services and counseling, rather than dumping them into the legal system. The Senate version of Klobuchar's bill awaits action in the Judiciary Committee.
High profile cases
While sporadic legislation in response to high-profile assaults is commonplace on the federal level, the new legislation represents a broader, more calculated approach. In many cases, lawmakers were inspired by crimes in their states.
Moved by a series of Star Tribune stories on sex trafficking in Minnesota, Paulsen hand-delivered copies of the series to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's office last year, urging him to read them.
Within a week Cantor began pressing for action, Paulsen said. In a memo to House Republicans, Cantor said the caucus will move to pass bills in May to "combat this horrific crime."
Klobuchar and Paulsen have focused on the exploitation of young girls who are lured into prostitution and later arrested, essentially dumping them into a criminal justice system from which they have little way to escape.
The lawmakers have traveled outside Minnesota to make the case for legislation. Paulsen joined Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on Monday to meet with law enforcement working on the issue. Along with prosperity and population growth, the state's Bakken Fields oil boom has brought an increase in human trafficking.
In April, Klobuchar traveled to Mexico with Cindy McCain, the wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as part of their efforts to address human trafficking across borders.
University of Minnesota Law School Prof. Mark Kappelhoff, who has supervised and tried trafficking cases as a federal prosecutor, traveled to Mexico with Klobuchar. Kappelhoff will take a leave from his teaching post this month to return to the Department of Justice, where, among other responsibilities, he will oversee the agency's human trafficking cases.
Minnesota's legislative efforts to end trafficking date back to 2000, Kappelhoff said, when the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone helped shepherd bipartisan legislation through Congress that imposed sentences ranging up to life in prison on traffickers who sexually exploit children and adults. The bill also included critical provisions to support and assist victims.
Aiming to reduce sexual assault on campus, the federal government last week disclosed that 55 colleges and universities are under investigation for possibly violating the law in their handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
None is in Minnesota, but reports of sexual assault at in-state campuses have increased in recent years.
Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, is also among nearly a dozen senators seeking new federal funding to battle campus sexual assaults.
Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault joined Klobuchar at an event on the University of Minnesota campus Friday, bringing together campus leaders and advocates.
"There are times when there is interest that grows behind a movement and it may not be sustained," Dunn said. "The magic is to have … this kind of directive come from the top levels of government."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell