WASHINGTON — Their cause has brought them to Mexico, the oil fields of North Dakota and on ride-alongs with Minnesota police, and it’s meant letters and floor speeches about events a world away, in Nigeria.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Erik Paulsen have joined an expanding, bipartisan group of lawmakers looking to tackle sex trafficking in the United States and around the world. When the U.S. House returns to work next week, it will vote on a series of anti-trafficking bills, including a couple from Paulsen, and Klobuchar said the Senate is planning on taking up of a few of its own.
Among their goals: expand nationwide what has worked in Minnesota, a “safe harbor” law meant to treat girls who are trafficked as victims of a crime rather than criminals themselves.
“We’ll give safe harbor to young girls or juveniles, maybe being human trafficked or sex trafficked or in prostitution, so they have no fear of prosecution, that they’ll get the counseling that they need and deserve as victims,” Paulsen said. “It helps law enforcement because when you remove that fear of criminalization, they share more about the bad guys. It’s worked very effectively in Minnesota.”
Bipartisan package up soon
Klobuchar and Paulsen came to focus on sex trafficking in different ways.
Klobuchar dealt with sex crimes when she was Hennepin County prosecutor, and she said she “saw the devastating effects on these young girls, when they were sold into prostitution.”
In the Senate, she’s worked with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to write legislation aimed at the problem. Her allies include Cindy McCain, Sen. John McCain’s wife, who traveled to Mexico with Klobuchar last month to talk about human trafficking with officials there. Last week, Klobuchar gave a floor speech calling for increased U.S. efforts to help find the 276 girls kidnapped trafficked by a terrorist group in Nigeria.
In an interview, she said combating sex trafficking should be “a major tenet of our foreign policy.”
“We have seen time and time again that when girls are not basically treated as doormats, that they are contributing members of the economy and the whole society changes,” she said.
Paulsen said he had a “natural interest” in protecting exploited women because he’s the father of four daughters, an interest only deepened by stories of sex crimes in Minnesota and around the country (he participated in a trafficking roundtable last week in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, where an economic and population boom has meant more sex crimes as well).
Paulsen went on ride-alongs with Bloomington and Minneapolis police last year, where he heard first-hand about the department’s anti-trafficking measures. Last fall, he brought the issue to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who worked with lawmakers to craft a package of bills they intend to move before the month is out.
Paulsen introduced two bills that were wrapped into the package, including one requiring foster homes to warn law enforcement when children go missing (a full list of the bills is in this April memo from Cantor’s office). In the Senate, Klobuchar has bills meant to increase penalties for federal trafficking crimes, and the pair worked on two similar bills modeled after Minnesota’s new safe harbor law.
The idea behind safe harbor laws is simple: previously, trafficking victims were arrested, treated as criminals and charged as such (for prostitution or other crimes). But Minnesota’s law, one of a dozen such laws around the country, says trafficked children under 16 are not to be charged, but given access to rehabilitation services instead. The rationale is that the girls will be given a chance to recover from their trauma — and hopefully be willing to assist law enforcement in locking up their traffickers if not facing prosecution of their own.
Paulsen’s and Klobuchar’s bills wouldn’t establish a national safe harbor law but rather offer federal financial incentives for states to implement their own.
“Not only do you better for them,” Klobuchar said, “you also do better for the cases, because they’re more likely — if they get help rather than ending up in jail — they’re more likely to testify against the pimps that run the sex rings, if they think that they at least have some future and people are trying to help them.”
So far, the group of lawmakers pushing sex trafficking bills has been a bipartisan one, and given leadership’s support, the House is likely to pass the bills next week. The Senate isn’t moving as quickly, but both Klobuchar and Paulsen said they expect lawmakers to pass at least some anti-trafficking measures this session.
“There is just a natural opportunity for an elected official to say, ok, what can we do to make a difference?” Paulsen said.
Hundreds convicted of sex trafficking in Minnesota
Advocates and lawmakers say sex trafficking is surprisingly prevalent in Minnesota and the Twin Cities, which the FBI ranked among the top 13 cities in America for sex trafficking crimes last year. More than 600 people were charged with sex trafficking violations in Minnesota in 2011, according to the State Court Administrator’s Office, and nearly 400 were convicted. Officials blame the Twin Cities’ location and transportation system, a major population center in the middle of the Midwest, sitting at the confluence of two major interstate highways.
Social justice and advocacy groups, who work with hundreds of woman and girls victimized by sex trafficking every year, say they tried for years to get the issue on politicians’ radars.
In 2005, state lawmakers responded. The Legislature established, with help from a federal grant, a special division within the St. Paul Police Department, the Gerald Vick Task Force, focused on combating sex trafficking around the city and state.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office secured a record 40-year prison sentence for a man convicted of trafficking in January, and county attorney John Choi says he’s doubled sex crime convictions since he took office in 2011.
Choi credits the safe harbor law. In February 2011, the county attorneys in the seven-county metro area announced they would stop prosecuting minors who were trafficking. Later that year, the state Legislature passed a state-wide law saying the same thing. Since then, Choi said, law enforcement has been able to more aggressively pursue pimps and johns rather than focusing on the girls themselves.
“We have to think differently,” he said. “We are not saying, ‘we’re going to prosecute you,’ because we can’t. Instead, you develop a much more robust and trustful and meaningful relationship, and that has made all the difference.”
Advocates: more funding needed
“It was a journey to get there, to get the safe harbor law passed,” said Vednita Carter, the founder and executive director of Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based advocacy organization devoted to providing services to victims of sex trafficking. “Minnesota, in comparison to some states, has really jumped on board, and has really listened.”
Minnesota is unique in allocating funds to implement components of its safe harbor law, and lawmakers set aside $2.8 million last year to expand women’s shelters and appoint support staffers around the state.
But Artika Roller, the Pride program director at the Family Partnership, said that still won’t be enough to meet demand — there are only four beds in Minnesota’s shelters set aside for trafficked girls right now, she said, and the new funding will open 18 more.
Breaking Free helps between 400 and 500 woman every year, Carter said. Roller said her program works with 250 adult woman and 100 minors annually.
“And if that’s just our program working with that many people, we know we are really not scratching the surface of providing the services for victims of trafficking,” she said.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry