Stalled Senate Sex-Trafficking Bill Should Stay That Way

This is one time that lawmakers using abortion as a political tool may be a boon for civil liberties.


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According to U.S. Senators, human trafficking is a form of "modern slavery" more vast than ever and fighting it should be "one of the top priorities of this nation." It's not as big a priority as partisan bickering over abortion funding, however—the bill quickly went from bragging rights for both parties to another instance of Congressional gridlock, stalled (and possibly doomed) by disagreement over whether sex-trafficking victims should have access to federally-funded abortions. But this is one time that lawmakers using abortion as a political tool may actually be a boon for civil liberties, as I argue in a new piece for The Week

Federal law already prohibits a wide range of conduct related to human trafficking, slavery, and child sexual exploitation. … Additionally, all 50 states have laws specifically criminalizing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. One should always be skeptical when politicians insist on new laws to target things that are already targets. At best, they may be trying to capitalize on a sympathetic issue for attention and kudos. At worst, it belies efforts to grant government agencies new powers and more money without people paying much attention. The "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act" seems to be a product of both.

One under-looked but worrisome aspect of the bill would set up several cybercrime-fighting units within the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These units, along with a team of military veterans known as the HERO corps ("Human Exploitation Rescue Operative"), would work with the Department of Defense and be deputized to fight all manner of "cyber economic crime," digital intellectual property theft, cyber-enabled money laundering, and "illicit e-commerce (including hidden marketplaces)." They would also participate in research and development on "digital forensics," and the bill would "provide computer hardware, software, and forensic licenses" for Immigration and Customs staff.

Funny how giving Immigration and the Defense Department a broad new mandate to police the Internet isn't really mentioned much in promoting the "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act."

As I've mentioned here before, the bill also incentivizes law enforcement to crack down on consensual prostitution, and it categorizes anyone soliciting sex from a trafficking victim or teen (even without being aware of their age or unwillingness) as a sex trafficker themselves. Legislators call this "ending demand" for trafficking.

Women's groups working on trafficking issues suggest that ending supply would be better — victims' biggest barrier to escape is a lack of emergency services and shelter, along with an inability to turn to police or other government officials for help for fear that they'll be the ones treated as criminals. Even in state's with "safe harbor" laws, victims are first arrested for prostitution and then given the option to prove they've been trafficked in court.

At a hearing earlier this month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said that the United States routinely treats sex-trafficked minors as criminals, arresting and jailing them for prostitution and fueling their return to their abusers. In response, U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis, acting director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told the hearing that "politics in the United States are complicated."

Politics may be complicated, but overcriminalization is no answer, I argue. Read the full article here

The "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act" is far, far from the only questionable anti-trafficking move U.S. police and lawmakers have made lately. A few recent examples we've covered here:

• "Enhanced Penalties for Prostitution Patrons in New York's New Human Trafficking Measure"
• "Sex-Trafficking Victims Hurt Most by Senator's Crusade Against Classified Ads"
• "64 Face Jail After Elaborate Sting Aimed at 'Ending Demand' For Sex-Trafficking"
• "Raided for Suspected "Human Trafficking," Shut Down for Paperwork Violations."