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House passes new legislation to combat sex trafficking

By Haley Hinkle and Adam Mintzer, Medill News Service   |   Jan. 28, 2015 at 8:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- The House passed five bills to increase government efforts to reduce human trafficking by creating policies to find and protect victims of sex trafficking and to make it easier to prosecute offenders.

At least 100,000 children are victims of human trafficking prostitution in the United States every year, said Samantha Vardaman of nonprofit Shared Hope International. Many members of Congress on Tuesday cited a much larger number, saying close to 300,000 minors are affected annually.

One of the measures would establish new protections for minors who are victims of human sex trafficking by creating a universal safe harbor law that many states have adopted. The law would prohibit minors from being tried for prostitution if they have been forced into sex trafficking.

Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., whose state was the one of the first to adopt a safe harbor law, said the legal protections provided for minors are effective in prosecuting human traffickers.

"By removing the fear of prosecution from victims, this actually works," Paulsen said.

Another bill that would target advertisements for sex-trafficking services generated some controversy. The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act, also known as the SAVE Act, would make it illegal for anyone to profit from online ads for sex-trafficking services.

Some congressmen expressed concern that the measure was too broad, making too many websites and hosting services vulnerable to prosecution even if they are not involved in the trafficking ads. The bill's author, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Miss., emphasized that the bill only targets those who the government can prove are directly involved in advertising activities that force children into sex.

Wagner said children are openly sold through these ads. "These websites accordingly reap enormous profits," she said. "It is hiding in plain sight, it is in every one of our neighborhoods."

However, while groups such as the Polaris Project, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, support Congress' efforts to fight human trafficking, they do not believe these bills would do enough.

"Funding for survivor services is already severely limited. Adding new programs and initiatives that draw funding from these minimal allocations is counterintuitive," Polaris official Keeli Sorensen said in a press release.

Last Thursday, Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., proposed a bill to create an advisory council composed of trafficking survivors to review federal human-trafficking policy.

"It must be a priority for the U.S. government, at all levels, to seek advice and recommendations on initiatives impacting the fight against modern slavery from those with firsthand knowledge," said Sorenson.

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