Virginia House passes human trafficking reform

Charlottesville organizations form to help survivors

The Virginia House of Delegates passed two bills Monday changing current laws regarding human trafficking, an issue that has gained significant traction recently in the state legislature.

“This is a rapidly growing crime in Virginia, and our goal is to stop it,” said Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, who proposed one of the bills. “The sex trade is … an abuse of the young people that are victimized by it, and we want to stop it as soon as we can.”

The bills passed in the House will serve to clarify the application of current laws regarding trafficking, kidnapping and abduction.

“Part of the problem is that some law enforcement [officers] have difficulty just trying to figure out exactly what laws pertain to traffickers,” said one aide to a Democratic state senator, who asked to remain anonymous. “There are laws already on the books for people who engage in kidnapping or abduction, so there are similar statutes that might be related to trafficking, but they’re not all necessarily grouped together in a stand-alone trafficking set.”

House Bill 235, which passed 94-5, focuses on clarifying the punishment for those engaging in sexual trafficking as customers. With the new provisions, those who solicit underage prostitutes, if convicted, will be required to register with the Virginia sex offender registry.

The bill also calls for equal punishment for offenders, regardless of whether or not a minor is brought into sexual trafficking willingly.

“We don’t think it’s a question of whether its against their will or not,” Bell said.

House Bill 660, which was passed 92-7, allows prosecutors of human trafficking cases to seize, and ultimately call for the forfeiture of, assets whose acquisition is traceable to trafficking.

“It is substantially broader than our current statute that only covers cars and only second offenses,” Bell said.

Though results in the House do not always predict the outcome of a bill in the Senate, the recent bicameral support for the human trafficking bills bodes well for the ultimate passage of concrete legislation, the Democratic aide said.

Sex trafficking is an issue that has similarly received increased attention in the Charlottesville area in recent years. The Charlottesville Justice Initiative, an organization that started up this fall and is working to raise awareness about human trafficking in Charlottesville and the surrounding area, plans to offer programs for victims of human trafficking, residents of the Charlottesville area and local law enforcement.

“We’re working towards the idea of having an in-depth training in police departments so they will know what to be looking for,” said Julia Craig, point person for the organization.

Though the CJI was not heavily involved in the two recent House initiatives, their umbrella organization, the Richmond Justice Initiative, was “at the forefront of the two bills,” Craig said.

The Arbor, an up-and-coming organization that plans to support and provide housing for victims of human trafficking in the area, planned a Feb. 3 awareness event with Albemarle County Public Schools which has been rescheduled due to snow. Presenters will discuss human trafficking in the region, as well as services the Arbor plans to provide for victims and their families.

Craig says there are a number of things Charlottesville residents can do to raise awareness about human trafficking on their own.

“A lot of people don’t even really realize it exists, so just spreading the word about the issue would be one thing,” Craig said. “You’re able to anonymously call into the national human trafficking hotline and report a tip, so if you feel like something fishy [is going on], you can report a tip.”

Published February 12, 2014 in FP test, News

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