TRENTON – An Assembly panel on Thursday approved sweeping bipartisan legislation to crackdown on human trafficking. The bill builds upon nearly a year’s worth of research and consultations with experts and advocates to tackle a growing crime that is estimated to claim up to 20 million victims worldwide.
“Until recently, human trafficking has remained largely in the shadows of society,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. “Victims are often children and vulnerable women who are too afraid and dependent on traffickers to break their silence and seek help. Many times they are exploited for years and coerced into prostitution, labor, and drug activity. When they finally have a chance to regain their freedom, they are prosecuted for the crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved, while the real perpetrators remain untouched by the law. With this bill, we hope to change all that.”
The sponsors noted that although the Division of Criminal Justice has reported 179 cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey in the past seven years, experts estimate that there are actually thousands of incidents occurring each year in the state. On a national level, the U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States annually, on top of the 100,000 victims who are already in the country when they are enslaved. This reporting discrepancy is often attributed to victims’ fear of coming forward.
During the hearing, the committee also heard testimony from Ingrid Johnson of Irvington whose daughter was 13 when she became a victim of human trafficking. Johnson struggled for two years, largely on her own, to find her daughter and was eventually successful in locating her at age 15. Her daughter is now a junior in college, but her story underscores the need for a strong, coordinated law enforcement network in place
“Human trafficking is a vast and often highly secretive crime,” said Assemblyman Peter Barnes III, (D-Middlesex), who chairs the Judiciary Committee. “We must be more coordinated and sophisticated to crack down on this illegal trade, especially with the Super Bowl headed our way in 2014. Statistics from other bowl games have shown a sharp increase in human trafficking leading up the event.”
The legislation (A-3352) would crack down on every aspect of trafficking by revising and expanding the state’s current laws to create a new human trafficking commission, criminalize additional activities related to human trafficking, upgrade certain penalties on existing human trafficking or related crimes, increase protections afforded to victims of human trafficking, and provide for increased training and public awareness on human trafficking issues.
In drafting the legislation, Vainieri Huttle spent the better part of this year gathering input by meeting with experts and advocates, including the NJ Coalition against Human Trafficking, an alliance comprised of diverse organizations, including the Junior League, the NJ Catholic Conference, The League of Women Voters and the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
Specifically, the bill would establish a 15-member Commission on Human Trafficking, to be located in the Department of Law and Public Safety, which would evaluate existing laws concerning human trafficking and enforcement, as well as review existing victim assistance programs, and promote a coordinated response by public and private resources for victims of human trafficking.
Additionally, the bill would establish a separate, non-lapsing, dedicated fund known as the “Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund,” which would be administered by the Attorney General’s Office with recommendations from the commission, to provide services to victims of human trafficking and promote awareness of the crime.
To that end, the bill takes aim at those that promote or enable human trafficking by sharply increasing fines and penalties for activities associated with human trafficking. All fines collected would be deposited in the “Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund,” including:
- Establishing a crime of criminal negligence for licensed owners or drivers of commercial passenger vehicles that participate in transporting human trafficking victims;
- Any person professionally licensed by a government agency would be criminally liable for negligently permitting an act of human trafficking on that person’s property or through their services and subject to a crime of the fourth degree, with penalties that include license revocation and imprisonment of up to 18 months, an increased fine of up to $25,000 (normally up to $10,000 for fourth degree crimes), or both;
- Any other form of criminal human trafficking, such as recruiting individuals or financing an operation, would be a crime of the first degree with a fine of at least $25,000;
- Anyone who knowingly owns, controls, manages, leases or supervises a premises where human trafficking is carried on, and fails to make a reasonable effort to eject the tenant or notify law enforcement authorities would be charged with a crime of the first degree, carrying a term of imprisonment of 10 to 20 years, a fine of at least $25,000, or both;
- Anyone who promotes prostitution by transporting a person into or within the state for that purpose or knowingly leases or permits a place to be used for that purpose would be charged with a crime of the third degree, punishable by imprisonment of three to five years; a fine of up to $15,000; or both; and
- Anyone who advertises commercial sexual abuse of a minor, such as escort services, would be charged with a crime of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment of 10 to 20 years, a fine of at least $25,000 but not more than $200,000; or both.
The bill would also create an expedited removal process for tenants engaged in human trafficking and allow any person injured as a result of human trafficking to file a civil claim, regardless of whether or not a criminal prosecution of human trafficking occurred.
Furthermore, the bill would establish the “John School Rehabilitative Program” to educate anyone who has been convicted of engaging a prostitute (“johns”) about the health risks and legal ramifications of their unlawful activity. Each defendant would be subject to a penalty of $1,000 to be deposited in the “Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund.” The program is modeled after similar “john school” programs that have been implemented in Buffalo, New York; Brooklyn, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and West Palm Beach, Florida.
The bill would also mandate law enforcement training on responding to the needs of victims of human trafficking.
“There are two important messages contained in this bill. To victims: You’re not alone. To perpetrators: We’re coming after you,” added Vainieri Huttle. “We’re taking a spotlight and shining it on this issue so that it can’t operate in the shadows anymore.”
The measure now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.
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