Legislation just introduced in the state House would tackle a key problem identified by advocates seeking to improve the way human trafficking cases are prosecuted: Too often, the exploited victim is arrested while the customers who create the demand for the illegal services go un-prosecuted.
Globally, advocates estimate that just over half of victims of human trafficking are being used for sex work, according to the advocacy group Equality Now. But in the U.S., the percentage tied to the sex trade is higher. A U.S. Department of Justice study of human trafficking investigations found that about 80 percent involved sexual exploitation.
State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, in January introduced legislation to crack down on sex slavery in the state. His House Bill 2029 was referred to the judiciary committee.
“Human trafficking robs the victim of their basic human rights and dignity. Those who profit off this detestable trade should face the full force of the law,” Grove said. “Human trafficking is, sadly, found in all corners of the Commonwealth, including York County where two men were recently arrested, accused of luring women into prostitution and using violence, drugs and threats to prevent them from leaving.”
Grove’s legislation, House Bill 2029, would increase the penalty for trafficking an individual into sex slavery from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony. Likewise, an individual who patronizes a victim of sexual trafficking would now face a first-degree felony. A first-degree felony conviction can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Additionally, patrons of victims of sexual trafficking would face an increased fine from $500 to between $1,000 and $30,000 at the discretion of the court. If the victim is a minor at the time of the offense, the fine would be increased to a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $100,000. The legislation also requires an individual who patronizes a victim of sex trafficking to register as a sex offender.
Rhodes said Grove’s bill takes the right approach by trying to increase penalties to discourage people from becoming customers to provide the market for human trafficking.
Those involved in human trafficking are involved in the crime “to make money. That’s it,” she said. “The commodity is a human being and there is a market for sex.”
The state passed a comprehensive law aimed at human trafficking in 2014.
With the 2014 law in place, there have been at least 32 people convicted of crimes tied to human trafficking in the state, Rhodes said.
Even so, advocates have been looking to get that 2014 measure updated, she said. Grove’s legislation is on the right track, she said.
Concern about human trafficking and its reach into Pennsylvania has spurred advocacy groups across the state – including groups in Cambria, Lawrence and Union counties — to begin trying to raise awareness of the issue.
One of the organizations that’s taken on the cause is Soroptomist International, said Diane Savidge of Middleburg, a district director for the Soroptomist club.
The club focuses on issues important to women and girls, so the effort to combat human trafficking was a natural one to join, Savidge said.
Like Rhodes, she said that there needs to be more emphasis placed on discouraging people from paying for sex to diminish the profitability of human trafficking.