The impression that America’s sex-trafficking problem mostly involves young people smuggled from overseas has given way to broad recognition of a cruel homegrown reality: the tens of thousands of juveniles who are exploited each year by traffickers in this country.
On Capitol Hill, a consensus is emerging on new initiatives to confront this human-rights problem and help its victims, often runaways or homeless youngsters who have been forced or coerced into prostitution.
The Senate Judiciary Committee last week unanimously approved a pair of anti-trafficking bills with wide backing from victim advocates and other experts, and the full Senate is expected to take up the package soon.
A bill championed by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, would create a new pool of financing — through additional fines on people convicted of sex and labor trafficking, child pornography and other crimes — for restitution, victim services and law enforcement. The idea of aiding victims without committing more tax dollars has drawn support from Republicans, and any new money for this badly underfinanced cause would help.
The Cornyn bill would also encourage prosecution of the “johns,” or buyers of juvenile sex, who typically escape criminal charges even though they are paying for what amounts to the statutory rape of children and teenagers. Their demand is what’s fueling the highly lucrative human slavery business.
The second bill, put forward by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, would give a preference for Department of Justice law enforcement grants to states that adopt “safe harbor” laws.
These laws help ensure that young people sold for sex are treated as victims and offered support services instead of being prosecuted. The House has approved similar bills, so it should not be hard to hammer out a strong final package.
A preventive measure that would help ensure housing and services for homeless juveniles, who are often prey to traffickers, unfortunately stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. One obstacle was the resistance of some Republicans to its nondiscrimination provision guaranteeing fair treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.
No young person should “have to choose between selling their bodies and a safe place to sleep,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who introduced the bill with Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. Undeterred, they plan to seek consideration from the full Senate.
Trafficking abroad remains a tremendous problem, so it is fitting that a promising approach comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which last week unanimously approved a measure to create an international public-private fund dedicated to the issue, similar to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. More resources could do a lot to help trafficking’s victims at home, too.