Laws stir debate on progress against sex trade

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A package of tough new laws Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette expects to make a major dent in human trafficking and sexual coercion will take effect this week, but some supporters worry the moves don't do enough.

As the new Legislature opens its session Wednesday, 18 of the 21 anti-human-trafficking bills Gov. Rick Snyder has signed will become law. They range from harsher penalties for perpetrators of the modern-day version of slavery to state protection for juveniles rescued from the sex trade.

"I'm elated by the strides we've made and that it has been victim-centered and bipartisan," said Schuette, who announced the legislative anti-trafficking initiative in November 2013. "When you meet with a victim and listen to her, it makes it real. This is somebody's daughter. It shocks your conscience."

The governor was similarly effusive when he signed the bills in mid-October.

"I'm extremely proud to sign this comprehensive bipartisan bill package, making Michigan one of the leading states in fighting this tragic crime," Snyder said then. "This effort holds criminals accountable while giving victims the support they need to overcome these horrific experiences."

But there are questions about how effective the laws can be unless lawmakers and Snyder follow up with significant state funding to provide shelters and other services for victims. The money wasn't included in the legislative package.

National advocacy groups such as Polaris Project and Shared Hope International say sheltering victims and providing mental health services and life skills training are crucial. Without them, advocates say, women freed from servitude are less likely to act as witnesses against traffickers and are vulnerable to being lured back into exploitative situations.

Michigan's efforts are a start, particularly in making the public aware that human trafficking is a real problem, said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

The legislative package "does not, however, make Michigan in the forefront of human trafficking laws," White said, because it doesn't provide "the kind of relief that supports victims of trafficking, who must have support services in order to become survivors."

Neighboring Minnesota, which the advocacy groups cite as a national leader in battling human trafficking, appropriated $2.8 million for victim services in 2013 and recently increased it to $5 million.

Services found lacking

A 2013 report from Michigan's Commission on Human Trafficking found that local services particularly lacking for victims were housing and "trauma-informed programming." The deficiencies were "largely the result of significant funding limitations among Michigan-based providers," the panel said.

University of Michigan professor Bridgette Carr, who served on the state task force whose report on human trafficking helped form the legislative package, would like the new laws to have gone further toward ending criminality for young women in prostitution cases.

While the legislation is a "huge step forward," it doesn't provide as much protection as federal human trafficking laws for girls younger than 18, said Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

Federal law assumes girls under 18 have been coerced into prostitution, but under Michigan's new law they still will bear the burden of proving they're human trafficking victims, she said.

Prosecutors can have them placed on probation, after which further criminal proceedings can be dismissed if they are first-time offenders and comply with court orders. It could include drug treatment or mandatory counseling — for which they must pay reasonable costs.

"It's impossible to help them if we retain the criminality of it," Carr said. "We wouldn't stand for" similar treatment of victims in other types of criminal cases, she said.

Schuette said Michigan had lagged other states in coming to terms with the problem, but argued that solutions must be shared by the private and public sectors, as well as nonprofits.

He said services are available in some places from nonprofit-sponsored facilities such as Vista Maria in Dearborn Heights, Kent County's Manasseh Project and Oakland County's Common Ground crisis center.

"It may not happen in every city, but I think there will be safe havens," Schuette said, noting how donation-funded shelters for domestic violence victims have spread around Michigan as awareness of that issue increased. "There's certainly more to do, and I'm not going to give up," he said.

Aimee Nimeh, director of crisis and advocacy at Common Ground, said she hopes the legislation will lead to more money to aid people who escape servitude. Common Ground, which provides crisis services in Oakland and Genesee counties, has a 24-hour crisis line that can help connect victims with services such as court advocacy, counseling and housing.

"We've always come into contact with survivors of human trafficking," Nimeh said. "A year ago, we got connected with people who wanted to do more for adults who were coming out of these situations. They would need shelter and some immediate services.

"What we saw was there aren't a lot of services for adults," she added. "The landscape wasn't as rich as it should be, given how pervasive the situation is with human trafficking."

State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, who has made anti-human trafficking efforts her crusade as a lawmaker, acknowledged that funding for housing and programs still is needed. She said lawmakers tried but weren't able to make it part of the package, and she intends to continue pushing for it.

Fee proposal resisted

Emmons said one proposal was to require adult entertainment establishments to collect a state fee of $3 to $4 per customer as part of their cover charges, but it faced "considerable pushback from the industry." In addition, Emmons said, conservatives objected to it as a new tax and liberals worried that owners of the establishments would extract the money from their employees' pay.

"We're coming back and we're going to revisit that," Emmons said.

Emmons says Michigan has made real strides since the effort began more than a year ago.

"We've talked to people whose own families had offered them (for sex for money); they didn't even recognize it's wrong," Emmons said. "The key is recognition and, once there's recognition, to have the tools to deal with the needs of the victims."

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Human trafficking

■What: Forcing people below age 18 into labor or services whether in factory or agricultural work or in the sex trade. Sex trafficking means the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion.

■Signs: Little or no pay; restricted movement; long work hours; harsh working conditions; security measures in the work area; worker exhibits fear; workers show poor physical health; workers don't control their money or identification; workers aren't allowed to speak for themselves.

Source: Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force

New laws

The new Michigan human trafficking laws taking effect this week include:

■Removal of the six-year statute of limitations on prosecution of anyone forcing girls 16 or younger into prostitution. Those committing this crime against minors will be subject to prosecution at any time.

■A change from misdemeanor to felony status for the crime of prostituting girls younger than 18. It will carry new penalties of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine or both.

■A state human trafficking commission housed in the Attorney General's Office and a central data collection system to provide a clearer picture of the size of the problem in Michigan.

■A provision that adds forcing of a child into sexually abusive situations to the kidnapping law. Kidnapping carries penalties of up to life in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.

■A law change to treat underage girls as victims rather than criminals in prostitution cases. It says girls under 18 will be "presumed to be coerced" into the sex trade and eligible for state juvenile services such as foster care and state-sponsored psychological or medical care normally available only to Medicaid recipients.

■A new law allowing the government to seize money and other assets associated with human trafficking and sexual servitude from those convicted of such crimes.

■A legal specification that testimony from a victim isn't necessary to prosecute someone accused of a human trafficking crime, and that the victim's resistance or lack of resistance cannot be considered relevant in court.

Source: Detroit News research