Here's What the Senate's Massive Sex-Trafficking Bill Would Actually Do

The legislation addresses much more than preventing and punishing traffickers.


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The U.S. Senate is expected to pass the "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act," which "targets both the buying & selling of trafficked victims," after an emotional debate on the Senate floor Tuesday. At the heart of the bill is a change to federal criminal code that would make soliciting sex from a trafficking victim a crime tantamount to sex trafficking itself, even if a defendant doesn't know the individual was forced or coerced. But the legislation also authorizes and funds a wide variety of community, state, and federal initiatives designed to prosecute human trafficking, as well as efforts to fight other "illicit sexual conduct," "illicit e-commerce," and cybercrime. 

The basics: The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and attracted a bipartisan roster of Senate co-sponsors, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), as well as the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "Victims groups and advocates have called this bipartisan measure the most comprehensive and thoughtful piece of anti-trafficking legislation currently pending," said McConnell on the Senate floor Monday.

Why to be wary: Because it is, as Sen. McConnell said, quite comprehensive. It would expand Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents' mandate to fight all manner of cyber-crime. It would fund a ton of law enforcement initiatives, from efforts at the FBI to small-town police departments (even paying the salaries of prosecutors and police officers who work on trafficking cases), using money from a newly created Domestic Trafficking Victims' Fund. It would make soliciting prostitution from a trafficked individual or anyone under age 18 the legal equivalent of sex trafficking, and make it harder for those charged to use not knowing the individual was trafficked and/or a minor as a defense. And it would authorize a $5,000 charge to anyone found guilty of trafficking or other illicit sexual conduct (in addition to any court-ordered penalties), to go back into the fund that pays the salaries of police and prosecutors

Human trafficking, sex with a minor, and related activities are already criminalized in the U.S., of course, as is soliciting commercial sex more generally. And anti-trafficking task forces and rescue organizations have already been proliferating across the country. Legislators didn't explain why these efforts are insufficient.

At Tuesday morning's hearing, Sen. Cornyn and supporters focused mostly on impressing the extent of sex-trafficking's horriblenes ("modern slavery," "a parent's worst nightmare") and relaying lurid accounts from victims. Senators spoke of "thousands" of middle-school girls trapped in "a life of bondage" and traffickers who hung around parks waiting to abduct runaway teens. But they offered no supporting evidence to these claims that trafficking is a swelling, overlooked, and underfunded issue, and little explanation of what the legislation actually entails. 

So what does it entail? Here are some of the more significant provisions of the lengthy bill (S. 178):

"Clarify the range of conduct punished as sex trafficking" and make "absolutely clear for judges, juries, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials that criminals who purchase sexual acts from human trafficking victims may be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted as sex trafficking offenders." This would be accomplished by amending the federal criminal code to make "patronizing" or "soliciting" a victim of trafficking a crime equivalent to "recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or maintaining" a trafficking victim. The person soliciting the victim would not have to know they are trying to purchase sex from someone underage or someone trafficked, merely act "in reckless disregard of the fact" that this was possible. "The Government need not prove that the defendant knew that the person had not attained the age of 18 years," the criminal code specifically states.

Change the standard a defendant charged with "illicit sexual conduct" must establish from "a preponderance of the evidence" to the more rigorous "clear and convincing evidence." 

Charge "any non-indigent person or entity" convicted of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or "transportation for illegal sexual activity" a $5,000 fine, which would go into a Domestic Trafficking Victims' Fund. This fund, administered by the Attorney General (AG), will go toward funding a wide variety of law enforcement and victims' services efforts. 

Fund private, municipal, and state efforts to establish "dedicated anti-trafficking law enforcement units and task forces" and "ensure that Federal law enforcement officers are engaged in activities, programs, or operations involving the detection, investigation, and prosecution" of sex trafficking. 

Establish the "Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Child Rescue Corps." In the HERO Corps, "the returning military heroes of the United States are trained and hired to investigate crimes of child exploitation in order to target predators and rescue children from sexual abuse and slavery."  

Create a Computer Forensics Unit and a Child Exploitation Investigations Unit within the Cyber Crimes Center (a division of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) to investigate trafficking, IP theft, money laundering, arms proliferation, and "illicit activity" on the deep web. These units will, among other things, "participate in research and development in the area of digital forensics," collaborate with the Defense Department to recruit, train, equip, and hire veterans and transitioning service members through the HERO program, and "enhance United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement's ability to combat criminal enterprises operating on or through the Internet, with specific focus" on "cyber economic crime," digital intellectual property theft, "illicit e-commerce (including hidden marketplaces)," "Internet-facilitated proliferation of arms and strategic technology," and "cyber-enabled smuggling and money laundering.

Create a "Council on Human Trafficking" to advise policymakers.  The council will be comprised of eight to 14 trafficking victims and serve as a nongovernmental advisory body.

Require regular reporting on efforts and arrest numbers from various city, state, and federal bodies, including the Government Accountability Office. 

Why It Might Fail: Senate Democrats have been raising a fuss about language in the bill which would prohibit money in the Domestic Victims' Traffic Fund from being used to help human trafficking victims obtain abortions. As of Tuesday afternoon, Senators were still debating the language, with Democrats theatening to block the bill.