Minnesota is a national leader in protecting minors who have been trafficked for sex, combining both decriminalization and supportive services for victims of the commercial sex industry.
In 2011, legislators here wisely passed the state’s model Safe Harbor law, which removed prostitution charges against those under 18 and provided support services for people up to age 24. In its public health approach to sex trafficking, this state rightly says that children don’t consent to having sex for money and that minors should be treated as victims.
Officials say sex trafficking is a “hidden crime” that’s difficult to track. According to a 2017 report from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 826 sexually exploited youths were served by a Safe Harbor provider between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016.
But those who are younger than 18 aren’t the only victims of illegal, commercial sex operations. Adults are also coerced, and in some cases treated like slaves, in national and international sex trade rings. They, too, should be considered victims, not criminals, under the law.
In that spirit, recent studies recommend a smart framework for expanding Safe Harbor laws to those 18 and older. After being asked by the Legislature to study next steps, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) outlined a process to broaden Minnesota’s Safe Harbor response to sex trafficking.
MDH’s plan was done in cooperation with the Minnesota Departments of Human Services and Public Safety and draws from findings and recommendations from a community engagement and research process. The work was led by the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) at the University of Minnesota, the Advocates for Human Rights, and Rainbow Research.
Nearly 300 stakeholders statewide contributed to “Safe Harbor for All: Results from a Statewide Strategic Planning Process in Minnesota,” including victims who had experienced being trafficked. Also supporting expansion of the law is an October 2017 Wilder Foundation evaluation of Safe Harbor that recommends including adults.
MDH and other plans sensibly highlight potential next steps, such as considering eliminating or expunging criminal penalties for adult victims that make finding jobs and housing more difficult.
The MDH report explores a range of ideas, including changing terminology to eliminate the word “prostitute,” increased training and culturally responsive practices, and enhanced planning efforts. Societal and institutional conditions that can lead to sex trafficking and exploitation were also considered.
“They [lawmakers] realize that the harms that people face when they’re trafficked or exploited don’t stop at 18 or 24,” Beatriz Menanteau, director of MDH Safe Harbor programs, told the Star Tribune. But applying the same laws to adults can be more complicated, which is why the MDH report outlines a range of responses for adults.
While those who are sold for sex need more protections, those who sell or buy people for sex should still be subject to criminal prosecution. Menanteau added that Minnesota takes a public health, human rights violation approach to sex trafficking on behalf of the victims — not traffickers and buyers.
During this session, state lawmakers who have dedicated $13.2 million since 2014 to supportive services should continue to lead on sex trafficking. It’s time to expand Safe Harbor laws to cover more people harmed by the commercial sex trade.