By BARBARA BELLINGER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Police have made arrests this year for human trafficking in Oakland County and more recently in Mecosta County.
Yet legislation that would keep victims of human trafficking from being arrested, charged and jailed when they are coerced to commit crimes has not moved since legislative hearings were held in early March and the end of April.
“It’s discouraging to see the lack of progress for these bills thus far, and it’s my hope legislators will give them the priority they deserve,” Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote in an email to Capital News Service.
Michigan ranked in the top 10 states for human trafficking in 2019 with 364 cases, according to the Polaris Project, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. The Michigan Abolitionist Project, which works to end trafficking, estimates that the actual numbers are closer to 1,100-1,400 individuals.
A sting operation in Mecosta County in August resulted in arrests of six men who came to the area to have sex with children. They could serve up to four to 40 years in prison if convicted.
But at issue is when children and adult victims of human trafficking commit crimes as a result of being trafficked or when they try to escape. Some lawmakers hope to keep them out of jail.
“When a victim steals a car to get away from human trafficking, should they be charged with theft?” asked Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, and chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “These victims need more grace.”
Trafficking doesn’t exist only in the larger cities such as Detroit and Lansing, Filler said. “This happens in rural Michigan. Even in my hometown of DeWitt, it’s easy for (the traffickers) to hide people in those communities.”
The human trafficking package of 26 bills that sits in the House Judiciary Committee would strengthen existing laws to protect the victims of human trafficking who commit crimes because of their situation.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, would erase any crime committed by a human trafficking victim as a direct result of being trafficked. That applies only to crimes of prostitution now.
Another bill, sponsored by Filler, would give the victims the right to present evidence that the crimes they committed occurred because they were trafficked.
Another, sponsored by Rep. Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian, would require the courts to stop moving forward cases where children commit a crime because they are human trafficking victims.
“Every child needs a champion,” Whiteford said in a Zoom interview. Whiteford said that the bills would provide just that to both juvenile and adult victims of human trafficking.
Hearings on the bills have been held in the Judiciary Committee, and Nessel testified about her strong support for the package and said victims of human trafficking needed encouragement to break the “cycle of silence.”
Whiteford said she is frustrated by the lack of action since then. The bills have taken a back seat in the past few months, she said. “The chair of the Judiciary Committee has other priorities.”
When asked about the hold up, Filler said that although the bills had broad support, concerns were raised at the most recent hearing that the laws as written would allow traffickers to force victims to commit multiple crimes knowing that they would get off.
Filler said he doesn’t want to give a free pass to all criminals. “I want to narrow them so they apply instead to real victims.” When asked whether this work has begun, Filler said his staff will review the issues.
Whiteford said the bills have enough flexibility already and should stand as proposed. “The bills give the judges the discretion to expunge on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
The Michigan Coalition to end Sexual and Domestic Violence welcomed the bills’ additional “safeguards to victims who have engaged in criminal activity in connection with their victimization.” The group pointed out that traffickers commonly coerce their victims to commit crimes as a method of control.
“No statistics exist for victims of human trafficking who have committed crimes because of their situation,” said Jane White, the executive director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force at Michigan State University.
“Do we know that this exists?” White wrote in an email. “Absolutely. Survivors tell us this often. It’s part of what human trafficking is.”
Whiteford’s goal is to get the bills out of committee before the end of the year.
“People are exploited,” she said. “Children are exploited. The average age of the juvenile human trafficking victim is 15 years old. We should all look out for the children in our lives.”