By Tommy Reynolds
Living in rural and small town Mississippi, many of us find it hard to comprehend that there may be people among us who are profiting from the trade in human beings. It is modern-day slavery–hiding behind closed doors and scurrying along our interstate highway system. It involves women and children in bondage to the sex trade and individuals who came to this country in hope of a good-paying job but wind up in labor warehouses helping their captors make obscene profits.
The idea of such terrible behavior is very foreign to our modern minds – after all, the institution of slavery was abandoned and outlawed over 150 years ago. But, be assured it still exists in the form of human trafficking. Statistics show that the enterprise of trading in humans is the second largest criminal activity in the world – right behind drug dealing and equal to the illegal arms trade.
Among the most important measures to come out of the 2013 session was a bill that I co-sponsored – The Human Trafficking Act, House Bill 673. It was overwhelmingly passed by both chambers and signed into law by the Governor on April 25. The Act went into effect on July 1.
Importantly, the bill paves the way for our society to regard those who have been procured into the human trafficking trade as victims. This new law institutes measures to protect victims and help them restore their lives by creating a victims fund and protecting confidentiality of their records. It gives law officers the right to seize perpetrators’ assets to help provide money for enforcement and training programs.
Surprisingly, we learned through testimony before the committee that the state prostitution laws had not been addressed or updated since the mid 1940s. Those old laws offered little or no acknowledgement of prostitutes as being the victims of their handlers. There were few punishments for those who purchased the services of prostitutes. Even though we now know that prostitutes are often coerced into the sex trade, many times as minors, prior to enactment of this measure there was very little disincentive for both the people who profited from the business as well its customers.
Now, victims of the sex trade will be rightfully treated as victims. Minors will be provided immunity when they are the victims of trafficking. The RICO statute was also amended to provide appropriate punishment for interstate traffickers.
It is heartening to see area churches involved in the fight against human trafficking–often as an international effort. The more people are aware of the existence of human trafficking, the more likely we will be able to wipe it out of our communities.
The Attorney General’s Office is leading enforcement efforts through the state by training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, shelter staff and other service providers on how to correctly respond to victims and perpetrators of human trafficking. The Act provides that office will house the state’s first Human Trafficking Coordinator to collect and disseminate data and make sure lines of communication are open throughout the state as law enforcement and others work to combat the scourge.
The U. S. Department of Homeland Security offers the following tips for identifying possible victims of human trafficking:
• Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
• Has a child stopped attending school?
• Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
• Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
• Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
• Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
• Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
• Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care?
• Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
• Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
• Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
• Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
• Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
If you believe you are witnessing a human trafficking situation, do not attempt to confront the trafficker. Rather, be particularly observant as to details and contact your local law enforcement officials for help. If you believe a minor is involved, state law now requires that you contact the Department of Human Services at 1-800-222-8000
It will take all of us paying attention and working together to end Human Trafficking. I am proud to have played a small role in changing the laws of Mississippi to help.
Please feel free to contact me at my local office at P.O. Drawer 280, Charleston, MS 38921, by phone at (662) 647-3203 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you on any issue that you may have.