Report finds gaps in sex-trafficking enforcement

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2008 - 5:08 AM

The report, released today, says pimps and customers don't face the same risk of arrest that prostitutes do.

Working as a prostitute in Chicago decades ago, Beth Jacobs said she frequently got arrested, caught by both undercover stings and uniformed police officers.

It wasn't the same for her customers or her pimp.

"My pimp never went to jail and I went all the time, because I was the one that was out there," said Jacobs, who now works as public policy coordinator for Breaking Free, an organization in St. Paul aimed at helping women out of prostitution.

It's a pattern that is often true in Minnesota, according to a Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment report released Monday at the state Capitol.

Changing that pattern to place pimps and customers in greater jeopardy is one of more than two dozen recommendations in the report.

Other suggestions include increased funding for programs to help those who are trafficked and increased training for police, prosecutors and others in the legal system to understand what constitutes trafficking under state and federal law.

"Our mandate was to make really clear recommendations about how this state can better respond to trafficked persons -- and there are lots of gaps" in the system, said Cheryl Thomas, of the non-profit Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis. The group produced the report, which was commissioned by the state Human Trafficking Task Force.

Those who study trafficking say the number of victims is always under-reported. A 2007 report found service providers had helped 637 sex trafficking victims over three years.

And differences in federal and state law reflect a lack of consensus on the definition of "sex trafficking."

Under federal law, authorities must prove "force, fraud or coercion" was used to get someone into prostitution.

Minnesota law, according to the report, "recognizes that a person can never consent to being sexually exploited and considers individuals who have been prostituted by others as trafficking victims."

Though many believe sex trafficking means bringing in victims from other countries, neither law requires crossing state or federal boundaries, according to report authors.

Pimps who are considered traffickers typically could be subject to federal charges that call for harsher penalties. The report urges tougher penalties under state law.

The report urges Congress to take out the force, fraud and coercion clause. But some local experts see things differently.

Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society, which provides services to international human trafficking victims in St. Paul, said that would mean starting over on the federal level.

"The case law is building up and people are understanding more what a trafficking victim is under the law and therefore they're understanding how to work with that," Miller said.

The report recommends law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, immigration officials, social service workers and others be trained to identify and assist trafficking victims. It also urges a public awareness campaign in the state.

The report cited numerous reports of "selective and uneven" enforcement against patrons. Of 284 misdemeanor prostitution-related cases submitted to one metro-area prosecutor, only 30 involved patrons, the report said.

Although metro-area law enforcement agencies have taken significant steps to better respond to sex-trafficking cases, law enforcement does not always treat trafficked persons appropriately, the report said, sometimes treating them as criminals instead of victims.

"That's all we can do," said St. Paul Police Department spokesman Tom Walsh. "If they're breaking the law, we have to treat them as criminals. That's not an option for us. If they want to change the statute, then they can do that."

Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), rebutted the report's criticisms of immigration authorities. Counts said ICE agents frequently arrest traffickers. They sometimes detain people, he said, to determine if they're victims and to obtain evidence against traffickers.

Nationally, "we are, on a weekly basis, rescuing victims and prosecuting traffickers," Counts said.

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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