Hennepin County is looking to boost its efforts to crack down on sex trafficking and better help victims.
The county is expected later this month to approve hiring specialized staff members in the county attorney’s and sheriff’s offices to address a growing number of sex trafficking cases, especially before next year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
“The arrival of the Super Bowl does bring some urgency,” Commissioner Marion Greene said Tuesday. “But we should do this investment anyway. We need to do something.”
The County Board had been expected Tuesday to approve using nearly $400,000 from the contingency budget for an attorney, crime analyst and two detectives. But the vote was delayed to get more answers for commissioners who have questioned the need for extra staffing, especially in the Sheriff’s Office.
Metro area prosecutors and police agencies anticipate that hundreds of women and girls will be sold on the sex market during Super Bowl 2018. But already there’s an increasing awareness of sex trafficking and the rising number of cases, especially in the west metro suburbs.
Hennepin County’s proactive efforts follow those of other metro counties, such as Washington and Ramsey. It’s also part of Hennepin’s No Wrong Door Response Plan that followed the state’s 2011 Safe Harbor law helping victims of sex trafficking.
Hennepin County’s program not only aims to go after pimps and purchasers, but also treats sexually exploited youth as victims and survivors rather than offenders and includes prevention efforts for at-risk teens.
Since the program began in 2014, the county has added a coordinator and two social workers to its staff. But law enforcement leaders say they’re overwhelmed by the number of cases and need more help to be proactive in combating sex trafficking.
“People don’t think it’s happening here in Minnesota ... that it’s an international problem. [But] it’s happening to our local youth,” said Amanda Koonjbeharry, the program’s coordinator. “We’re just reacting to what comes in; we have to do proactive work too.”
At a committee meeting last week, County Board Chairwoman Jan Callison said resources were available and that it was a question of priorities.
Representatives for both the sheriff’s and county attorney’s offices said that combating sex trafficking was a priority but that it often takes longer to investigate or prosecute without specialized staff. A spokesman said the county attorney’s office has about 20 sex trafficking cases a year.
“Our attorneys are pretty overwhelmed in the criminal division already,” said Al Harris, the managing attorney for the county’s adult prosecution division, at last week’s meeting.
If the County Board approves the new staffing increase on Feb. 23, the new hires could start in March.
“There’s so much we have to keep up with,” Koonjbeharry said. “We need these resources.”