AG: Gaps exist in state's human trafficking laws; Victim-centered approach to addressing issue is important

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 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
When Zhaohui Shen, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, learned that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was speaking about human trafficking at Cooley Law School’s Ann Arbor campus, he knew he had to be there.
Not only did he want to meet the state’s most prominent attorney, but he was surprised to learn that human trafficking is an issue here, as well.
“It is very shocking for a Chinese to learn that the problem of human trafficking is so serious in Michigan, U.S.,” said Shen, an assistant law professor in China who has been in Ann Arbor just a month. “I thought it was only the problem of the developing counties like China.”
Many Americans don’t realize how serious the problem is here, either, Schuette told the crowd of about 60 during last week’s event sponsored by the Junior League of Ann Arbor.
Schuette began by defining human trafficking as someone—usually a young woman—who through fraud, force, coercion or pretense of some fashion is forced into employment, pornography or prostitution. Forty percent of cases involve the exploitation of a child.
“Words don’t really capture what this issue is all about,” he said. “That it would happen in the 21st Century in the state of Michigan and across the country is just a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Schuette stressed the importance of a victim-centered approach to addressing human trafficking through legislation, training, and public awareness.
“These traffickers—these thugs—rake in about $32 billion a year,” he said. “They make profits forcing young women to have sex, or into a forced employment situation. They get their ill-gotten gains by putting people into servitude.”
Last year, Schuette collaborated with the Legislature to form the 31-member Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking to assess the threat human trafficking poses to Michigan residents and develop policy recommendations to expose and prevent it.
The commission met with victims, law enforcement, legislators, victim advocates and service providers, academicians and more. The commission found that:
• Many citizens are unaware that human trafficking happens in Michigan.
• There are significant gaps in Michigan’s anti-trafficking laws.
• Many professionals fail to recognize indicators of human trafficking and addition training is needed to help them recognize the crime, reporting it to officials and responding to victim’s needs.
• There is a severe lack of Michigan-specific human trafficking data. Survey results and interview responses reveal that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of victims in the state.
• The commission developed a wide range of recommendations for policymakers, including a standardized human trafficking victim assessment tool for service provides, increased housing facilities for victims, and passing legislation that strengthens anti-trafficking efforts. The report also recommends:
• Passing a Safe Harbor law to ensure minor victims are treated as victims in need of services, not criminals.
• Expanding housing for trafficking victims who have nowhere to turn after being rescued from their trafficker.
• Increasing penalties for “johns” who solicit sex from 16 and 17 year-olds from a misdemeanor to a felony.  The commission also recommends strengthening state forfeiture laws to reduce trafficker’s ability to profit from the exploitation of children, women and men.
• A statewide public awareness campaign and human trafficking poster law to elevate the discussion and awareness that human trafficking happens here.
• Schuette explained that everyone must do his or her part to fight human trafficking right in Michigan, from letting your legislator know you support new legislation on the issue to taking the cause to local service clubs and places of worship.
Last July, the FBI made 18 arrests in human trafficking in Michigan, saving 10 children. 
Both State Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) and State Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) applauded Schuette for heading a bi-partisan committee that worked so hard and well together, despite political differences.
Warren noted that in Michigan, 60 percent of human trafficking involves forced labor, and first responders don’t always recognize the signs of labor trafficking.
She said 16 kids in west Michigan were discovered by firefighters gathered in a back building working on things. They didn’t realize they were victims of human trafficking in the agricultural service industry.
 “No questions were asked,” she said, noting that the presence of so many children working together in a rural building obviously “wasn’t a slumber party.”
“This isn’t just a crime that happens in Asia somewhere,” she said. “It is happens in our back yards.”
 

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