State targets underage sex traffic; some criticize methods

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LANSING – Michigan has cracked down on sex trafficking of minors, but some experts say the state is taking the wrong approach to combating the problem.
According to the FBI, 100,000 children are exploited for commercial sex in the United States each year. While there are no reliable estimates for the number of underage sex workers in Michigan, experts say the practice is widespread.
“There are cases all across the state,” said University of Michigan human trafficking expert Bridgette Carr. “From villages to metropolitan areas, people tend to think of sex trafficking as something exotic or foreign, but it’s an issue everywhere.”
Carr said traffickers identify vulnerable victims, lure them into prostitution through manipulation and keep them compliant through physical abuse and psychological coercion.
“If a victim wants a boyfriend, the trafficker will fill that role. If they need money he will manipulate them with money. If they don’t have family, he will provide them with a sense of family.”
In 2010, the Legislature passed new laws imposing harsher penalties for pimps and civil restitution for their victims.
Attorney General Bill Schuette went one step further, creating a task force to deal with the issue.
In a statement marking the creation of the new unit, Schuette said, “Modern day slavery happens in Michigan every day and it must be stopped. This is a warning for the criminals running these operations: Your time is up.”
Since the task force’s creation last July, it has charged two men under the new law.
On March 23, the task force achieved its first conviction. Sedrick Leman-Isaac Mitchell, 33, of Detroit, was convicted for trafficking two girls aged 14 and 15.
“It’s a major effort that will be paying off more and more,” said Joy Yearout, deputy director of communications for the attorney general’s office. “The task is going to be working with local law enforcement to get as many of these convictions as possible.”
But experts on human trafficking said, despite stepped-up efforts and tough talk, the state is approaching enforcement the wrong way. Arresting underage victims and treating them as criminal defendants only exacerbates the problem, experts say.
“We need a paradigm shift,” Carr said. “Instead of arresting victims of sex work and using them as tools for prosecutions, we should remember that these are victims, not criminals.”
Carr said prosecuting sex-trafficking victims plays into the hands of traffickers and ultimately leads victims back to sex work.
“This approach simply reinforces what a trafficker tells his victim — that law enforcement is the enemy, that they can’t be trusted,” she said.
Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, said Michigan should adopt “safe harbor” laws that protect children under the age of 18 from prosecution.
Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington all have laws that divert victims away from courtrooms and into protective care.
Those laws also provide victims with services like long-term housing, mental health counseling and access to education.
“Michigan continues to treat minors involved in prostitution activities as delinquents,” White said, “even though federal law clearly states that foreign national victims are indeed victims.”
Carr said one of the major difficulties in changing law enforcement policy is dealing with public perceptions about minor sex trafficking. She said the issue should be viewed in the same light as child abuse or domestic violence.
“When there’s money involved, then we start to treat a victim differently – what is the difference?” asked Carr. “We need to treat victims as victims.
“Otherwise, if the fight against sex trafficking is going to be a scorched-earth campaign, we have to ask ourselves ‘is it worth it?’”

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