JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced several measures on Monday that he says will help combat human trafficking in the state.
Hawley’s initiatives include issuing new consumer protection rules, creating a new anti-trafficking unit under the attorney general’s office and establishing an anti-trafficking task force to combat commercial sex and forced labor, according to a statement from Hawley’s office.
The consumer protection rules would make it illegal to create a business as a front for a trafficking operation. They would also prohibit debt bondage a practice where people lend money or valuables to a victim and use it to coerce debtors into commercial sex or forced labor and make it illegal to induce people to come to Missouri for a fake job to force them into labor or commercial sex.
An anti-trafficking unit composed of local prosecutors and investigators will enforce the regulations.
A separate, permanent task force will look for ways to help victims and further prevent trafficking, Hawley said. It will be chaired by the attorney general and include local prosecutors, police and leaders from the nonprofit sector.
Hawley, a Republican, said his office has been working on these efforts since “day one.”
“I think people don’t know about the scope of the problem,” Hawley said. “I think they don’t realize that it happens here (in America) and it happens all the time.”
In 2016, Missouri ranked 17th in cases of human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Of the 26,700 calls to the hotline that year, 2,000 were from Missouri. Ninety eight percent of trafficking victims are women.
The initiatives will be paid for using money the attorney general has won in fraud cases. It’s unclear how much of that money will still be available after a House budget committee proposed taking $7 million from the fund to help finance the public defender’s system for fiscal year 2018. The budget still needs votes in the House and Senate as well as the governor’s signature to pass.
Last week, several organizations including the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state for “shockingly inadequate” funding for the public defender’s system. Missouri currently ranks 49th of 50 states in per capita indigent defense spending.
The attorney general made the human trafficking announcement Monday at a safe house for trafficking victims in St. Louis. He was accompanied by a trafficking survivor Katie Rhoades who was coerced into trafficking in Portland, Oregon, and then sent to San Francisco, California. She escaped after three years and now leads a nonprofit agency that helps trafficking victims in St. Louis, Hawley’s statement said.
Hawley’s effort appears to be bipartisan as Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said she supported Hawley’s efforots.
Nasheed filed bills this year that would expunge criminal prostitution records if the person is a human trafficking victim and raise penalties for people soliciting prostitutes, especially if the prostitute is a minor.
“I’m just happy that I have a partner in crime when it comes to fighting human trafficking,” she said.
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