Much like the early 1990s, when Minnesota took a leadership role in efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act, the state’s work to combat sex trafficking is serving as a national model.
Thanks to the bipartisan work of Democrat Amy Klobuchar in the U.S. Senate and Republican Erik Paulsen in the U.S. House, there may soon be federal legislation in place to provide incentives for states to pass “Safe Harbor” laws similar to those in Minnesota and a few other states.
Such laws are critical in the battle to curb sex trafficking, because they ensure that minors sold for sex are treated as victims and directed to child protection rather than being prosecuted as criminals.
In too many states, minors caught up in the sex trade are treated no better by the legal system than by the pimps who profit from their abuse. That dynamic started to change in Minnesota in 2011, when the Legislature passed the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act.
Specific estimates vary widely, but there is little doubt that hundreds of minors are involved in the sex trade in Minnesota every day. Although many are brought here from other countries, thousands of American children younger than 18 are lured into prostitution each year. Advocates say there are more victims in the 12- to 15-year-old age range and that both girls and boys are sold for sex on our streets and advertised on websites such as Backpage.com.
Klobuchar first saw the devastating impact of sex trafficking as a Hennepin County prosecutor. Paulsen, who more recently made the issue a priority, has participated in police ride-alongs and worked with local advocates to learn more about the growing problem.
In May, the U.S. House passed the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, or SETT, co-sponsored by Paulsen and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. In addition to Safe Harbor incentives, the bill makes victims eligible for Job Corps services and training. It also creates a national human-trafficking hot line and bolsters Department of Justice oversight of restitution payments to victims.
The bill and four other anti-trafficking measures passed by the House are similar to Klobuchar’s SETT bill, which is gathering bipartisan support in the Senate but has yet to pass. The Senate bill also would create a national strategy to help coordinate the investigative efforts of federal, state, local and tribal agencies.
Last year this page urged our congressional delegation to push for federal anti-trafficking legislation, and Klobuchar and Paulsen deserve credit for their follow-through. It’s disappointing that states need federal prodding to create safe harbors for victims, but once again Minnesota is leading the way — thanks to smart legislators, progressive law enforcement officials, and strong advocacy in the nonprofit and corporate sectors.
Credit also goes to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who has put a spotlight on the issue since his election in 2010. Earlier this year, Choi successfully prosecuted Otis D. Washington, who along with relatives ran a sex-trafficking ring that used physical, sexual and psychological abuse to exploit 50 especially vulnerable girls and young women, many of whom had mental health issues, over a decade.
Advocates rightfully cheered when Ramsey County District Judge Rosanne Nathanson gave Washington a 40-year prison sentence — the longest in Minnesota history for a sex-trafficking conviction.
But prosecuting pimps is just one piece of the broader strategy needed to combat trafficking. Another key component is providing adequate shelter and services for victims, who are too often hunted down by their abusers if they are not protected in secure housing.
The 2014 Minnesota Legislature made progress on those fronts by appropriating $1.5 million a year in additional funds. However, the state is still $8.5 million short of the original $13.5 million request. That total would fully fund the Safe Harbor program, including 40 secure beds in shelters statewide.
Advocates say they’ll continue to push for full funding in 2015 and, according to Jeff Bauer, director of public policy at the Family Partnership in Minneapolis, they’ll be back “as any times as it takes to fully implement this system.”
In Washington, Klobuchar is continuing to rally support for her bill in the Senate, and we would hope Congress would take time out from election-year politicking long enough to make SETT a reality in 2014.
Once that hurdle is cleared — and presuming states react to the incentives approach and adopt their own Safe Harbor laws — state and federal lawmakers should turn to funding options for shelter programs.
Having the right laws in place is critical. Fully funding those laws — and offering the needed shelter and care for victims — is the next major step as Minnesota and the nation address an issue that was largely ignored for far too long.