By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – In the midst of what experts call the second-fastest growing criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking, some legislators are pushing for tougher punishment for sex traffickers.
The new legislation would ensure that defendants convicted of coercing children ages 16 and 17 into prostitution are more stiffly punished, said Senate sponsor Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan.
Sex trafficking is widely considered a form of modern-day slavery.
When Michigan’s human trafficking laws were bolstered in 2010, sentences for those exploiting 16- and 17-year-olds were shorter than for younger children, Emmons said.
Emmons said the bill, pending in the Judiciary Committee, would change that and set a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Cosponsors include Sens. John Moolenaar, R-Midland; Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township; Coleman Young II, D-Detroit; Geoff Hansen, R-Hart; and Arlan Meekhof, R-Olive Township.
But some experts say that while they support the legislation, it fails to address underlying social problems.
For example, Eric Lambert – chair of Wayne State University’s Department of Criminal Justice – calls the legislation a mere Band-Aid. It “makes the assumption that humans are rational beings,” but many adolescents coerced into the sex trade are anything but.
“It’s nice to think having harsh, draconian sentences will solve the problem,” he said. However, “it won’t.” He lists the unsuccessful war on drugs and prohibition-era bootlegging as examples.
The real problem, Lambert says, starts in the family.
Those abducted are often “at-risk” children from families lacking parental oversight and valuable social connection, Lambert said. Many times their parents have substance abuse or emotional problems, so they seek affection where they can find it.
That bleak outlook on the future often leads victims to the streets, where they’re approached by sex traffickers, he said.
Under current law, victims of sex trafficking can also be prosecuted for prostitution. Emmons wants to change that too.
Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette’s office says sex trafficking is worth an estimated $32 billion a year, globally.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,515 incidents of human sex trafficking were reported between 2008 and 2010. Of those cases, nearly half involved sexual exploitation of a child, and 350 cases involved labor exploitation.
Experts say there are no reliable statistics on sex trafficking in the state.
The crime is usually reported under a different category, and most investigators aren’t trained to detect trafficking, said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.
Centered at Michigan State University, the 90-agency organization promotes awareness of human trafficking and help for victims.
White said only recently was human trafficking correctly classified by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. Before that, “it got lost. It was assault with a deadly weapon. It was murder. It was sexual criminal conduct. It was reported under various kinds of things, or it was not acknowledged.”
White said that while she appreciates Emmons’ legislative effort, it won’t solve the problem, which she says happens wherever illegal drugs are sold.
“The issue is protection of minors. They are treated as delinquents. It’s not right; they’re victims. It’s not the punishment that will curb the issue. It should be a victim- centered law. And right now, it is simply looking at the offender. That’s not doing us any good,” White said.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said state prosecutors should be authorized to obtain warrants to wiretap those suspected of being involved in sex trafficking. Currently, only federal investigators have the authority to wiretap, he said.
Jones, who is cosponsoring the Emmons proposal, said victims are often taken to the United States from other countries. But victims aren’t always international–many are from Michigan.
And Emmons said, “I would say you could find a case in every county in the state,” adding that there have been reported cases in her district.
She estimated that there are some 130,000 victims in the state, although that’s less than 1 percent of the national figure.
“My measure targets the individuals who solicit prostitutes because they financially support this modern-day slavery,” Emmons said.
“Due to their deviant and criminal nature, children and women continue to be sexually exploited against their will. I believe that the violator is just as guilty as the trafficker, and my bill will ensure that anyone attempting to exploit a child receives a severe punishment – one fitting the gravity of their crime,” she said.
Schuette recently announced criminal charges against Vinson Alexander of Florida, who is accused of human trafficking and assault after allegedly forcing a woman to work as a stripper in Southeast Michigan.
The case arose from a Southfield Police Department investigation.
Alexander allegedly stole his 18-year-old victim’s earnings, threatening and assaulting her when she resisted. Schuette’s office said the woman was seriously injured after an assault in February.
His alleged accomplice, Taryn Johnson of Tennessee, also faces a human trafficking charge.
Since its 2011 inception, the attorney general’s Human Trafficking Unit has obtained five convictions, according to his office.
Online Resources for CNS Editors
Senate Bill 205 http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2013-2014/billintroduced/Senate/pdf/2013-SIB-0205.pdf
By MICHAEL GERSTEIN