TRENTON – The General Assembly on Thursday unanimously granted final legislative approval to bipartisan legislation to crack down on human trafficking. The measure now heads to the Governor’s desk.
The legislation (A-3352), known as the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, builds upon more than 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.
“Human trafficking is a horrific crime that is vastly underreported, making it all that much harder to crack down on,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the legislation. “Because the victims, often children and vulnerable women, are too afraid and dependent on traffickers to break their silence, human trafficking has remained largely in the shadows of society. Many times they are exploited for years and coerced into prostitution, labor, and drug activity. This bill will help raise awareness and toughen prosecutorial tools, two key elements needed in the fight to end this modern day slavery.”
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.
Following passage of the bill, the sponsors joined with advocates from the Polaris Project and the NJ Human Trafficking Coalition to underscore the importance of the bill and the urgent need for Gov. Christie to sign it into law. Among the many important avenues of redress offered in the bill for victims are:
- Unjust convictions can be removed from a survivor’s criminal record so they will no longer be denied housing, higher education, or a promising career because of convictions that occurred as a result of being trafficked.
- A 15-year-old sex trafficking victim will be able to testify against her trafficker via closed circuit television, saving her from a re-traumatizing confrontation.
- A survivor of labor trafficking whose abuse left him with years of medical bills can sue his trafficker for their cost.
- The National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline will be posted where victims are most likely to see it, putting them one phone call away from hope and help.
“Human trafficking is a vast and often highly secretive crime,” said Assemblyman Peter Barnes (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 comprehensive legislation 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 last 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:
- Any 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
- A person would be strictly liable for a crime of the first degree for holding, recruiting, luring, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining, by any means, a child under 18 years of age to engage in sexual activity, whether or not the actor mistakenly believed that the child was 18 years of age or older, even if that mistaken belief was reasonable.
- 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 also provides an additional measure of redress for any person injured as a result of human trafficking by allowing them to file a civil claim regardless of whether or not a criminal prosecution of human trafficking occurred. The bill would also create an expedited removal process for tenants engaged in human trafficking.
Furthermore, the bill would establish the Prostitution Offender Program, a “Johns School,” to educate anyone who has been convicted of engaging a prostitute about the health risks and legal ramifications of their unlawful activity. Each defendant would be subject to a penalty of $500, $200 of which would be deposited in the “Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund” with another $200 being used to fund the program and $100 going to the arresting municipality to provide incentives for investigation and enforcement. 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.
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