By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Missouri has had human trafficking legislation in place for a handful of years, but a bill recently passed by both the House and the Senate would create stiffer penalties for the crime. On May 10, the Missouri Senate gave final approval to the legislation, passing it 154-0. It had passed the House in April with a vote of 34-0. The bill now goes to Governor Jay Nixon for his signature.
The bill approved by Missouri legislators increases prison sentences from five to 15 years to a maximum of 20 years for those convicted of trafficking for forced labor or slavery, and for trafficking for sexual exploitation and for abuse through forced labor. People convicted of trafficking could also be fined a maximum of $250,000.
Courts also would be required to order those convicted of human trafficking offenses to pay restitution compensating victims for the value of their labor and for mental and physical rehabilitation needed for themselves and for their children
In addition to the court ordered prison time and fines, trafficking victims could file a civil lawsuit, and the state attorney general’s office could bring its own lawsuit, seeking a civil penalty of up to $50,000 per violation from those who benefit from trafficking.
The bill was introduced on Jan. 13 by Representative Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, who said that human trafficking is a problem in the state and that the new legislation will help “catch and put away” more traffickers, and the longer sentences and stiffer fines will eventually “reduce the instances of it happening in Missouri.”
The proposed legislation was subject to several hearings, testimony from survivors and from service providers, and tweakings in language. In March, corresponding legislation was introduced by State Senator John Lamping, R-St. Louis County.
With the passage of this legislation, Missouri’s state laws and procedures would closely match federal laws.
Since late spring 2010, KC-CASE (Kansas City Coalition to Abolish Sexual Exploitation), a task force to research and lay the groundwork to make Kansas City a model city in the fight against trafficking and the sex trade and a provider of services to area youth and child victims, has worked in support of the bill. KC-CASE includes people from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, the Salvation Army, Jewish Vocational Services, Cornerstones of Care, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Veronica’s Voice, the Kansas City Health Department, state and federal law enforcement, the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, and children’s rights groups. The group worked closely with Renewal Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit dedicated toward the abolishment of human trafficking and victim restoration. Much of the background work and language for both the original bill sponsored by Anne Zerr and the corresponding Senate bill, sponsored by John Lamping (R- St. Louis County), was supported by KC-CASE and the Missouri Catholic Conference.
Jude Huntz, director of the Human Rights Office of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, was excited about the passage of the legislation.
“This is really exciting,” he said. “But there’s more work to be done. The next step is to educate local law enforcement.” The legislation will allow the Department of Public Safety to develop procedures for identifying trafficking victims and training programs to help educate law enforcement about the existing state and federal laws and how best to assist victims.
Huntz added, “The attorney general’s office has expressed willingness to hold classes or workshops to educate prosecutors and local DAs and maybe they then could hold workshops in outlying counties. Of course it will take some time and money, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
State Senator Lamping issued this statement regarding the passage of the human trafficking bill: “I am very proud of my colleagues for recognizing the importance of this legislation. In order to make Missouri’s laws most effective, we need to provide courts and law enforcement officers with clear and consistent definitions and guidelines to aid them in enforcing the law; that is exactly what this legislation will do.”
Tyler McClay, general counsel for the Missouri Catholic Conference, said the state’s public policy arm is thrilled with the bill’s passage. “It’s a great victory to get the bill passed the first time it comes up for consideration.”
He cautioned that there are restraints placed on the bill, some of them fiscal. “The bill allows for procedures and programs to be developed,” McClay said, “but does not provide funding for them. We’ll have to work on that.”
Since the first trafficking legislation in Missouri was passed several years ago, 41 cases have been prosecuted in Kansas City, McClay said. “This is just getting started. We need to educate and raise awareness, and the way to do that is to put on a different pair of glasses. Then we can look at the issues of trafficking and victims differently.”
Kristy Childs of Veronica’s Voice is pleased that the bill passed but aware that much work remains before trafficking is reduced. “This is a small victory in the big scheme of things,” she said. “One small victory, which will lead to the next, and then to the next.” She is convinced that prostitution and trafficking are demand issues. “The buyers control and fuel it,” she said. “One girl may be sold to as few as five and as many as 25 men in one day … Reduce the demand and fewer girls and women will become victims. We have to focus on the demand side.”
The legislation is expected to be signed by Gov. Nixon in the coming weeks.