Virginia’s status as the last state to enact a standalone statute for human trafficking may be a thing of the past after the General Assembly in 2015.
Several groups have formed a coalition called Kids Are Not For Sale to strengthen laws against human traffickers by passing legislation that creates a separate statute for human trafficking in Virginia. Shared Hope International, Richmond Justice Initiative, Regency Law School and the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative are all a part of the grassroots movement to enact the new statute. The statute eliminates the need to prove coercion, force or fraud, if the victim is a minor.
Shared Hope International reports that the average age of human trafficking victims is 12. The International Labor Organization, a specialized labor rights agency in the UN, reported this year that worldwide human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar industry.
The coalition was formed in November to design legislation to target traffickers. The first step was to bridge the gap between lawmakers and the experts who prosecute pimps. After the group talked with experts on human trafficking, they decided to make their main goal a standalone statute specifically against the crime.
“In order to determine what prosecutors and law enforcement need to better address this crime,” said Tabatha Mansfield, coalition coordinator for Kids Are Not For Sale, “we asked them what they are currently lacking under Virginia law.”
Kids Are Not for Sale has three goals for the statute: one is to help identify victims of trafficking easier, provide proper punishment to offenders and the other is to send a message to traffickers that they aren’t welcome in Virginia.
Virginia currently punishes human traffickers with substitute laws like abduction and philandering. Abduction is often used to punish pimps. However, Kids Are Not for Sale notes that the abduction statute requires proof of force, coercion or deception. These substitute laws, according to the coalition, makes prosecuting pimps difficult.
“With abduction you are physically taken, a trafficking victim could be in a hotel room for a couple of hours with no one,” said Alicia Cundiff, director of policy for the Richmond Justice Initiative. “So a jury and judge will ask why you didn’t just leave.”
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Cundiff said victims of human trafficking often have psychological trauma or are attached to their pimp. This makes it difficult for victims to leave even if they are left unattended since they don’t meet the criteria of the current law that makes abduction a hard sell for prosecutors to make in court.
“We have to be clear that the victims are victims,” Cundiff said.
The statute will make human trafficking a Class 2 felony that “properly reflects the heinousness of the crime,” according to Mansfield. The statute has been in the works since August and has been sponsored by Del. Timothy Hugo, R-Clifton, along with Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.