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A small step
General Assembly bills would advance the fight against slavery

Date published: 1/30/2013

VIRGINIA may do well on many measures of achievement, but when it comes to human-trafficking laws, one advocacy group gives the state a big fat F. Shared Hope International laments that the Old Dominion has done little to change its legal code to fight the scourge of modern-day slavery. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators hopes to change that.

Now, says Shared Hope, Virginia has no laws against trafficking in persons for prostitution. Instead, cases must be prosecuted under musty "abduction for immoral purposes" laws--statutes that require prosecutors to show that even minor victims were coerced into prosecution. The state has no laws addressing sex tourism ("Virginia is for Lovers," but not that kind). Further, prosecutors enjoy few options in limiting "demand" by bringing to justice those who pay for sex with minors.

As a result, says Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, "Traffickers profit from the control and exploitation of children and adults--taking victims by threat, force, or coercion to exploit them for forced labor or sexual servitude. And it is happening right here in our commonwealth."

Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, has introduced a bill to make sex trafficking more expensive for offenders. The bill would up the penalty for soliciting prostitution from a minor from a misdemeanor to a Class 5 or Class 6 felony, depending on the victim's age. Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, introduced a parallel bill in the Virginia Senate. Both bills are receiving widespread support.

Other delegates have offered bills clearing up jurisdictional problems in prosecuting human-trafficking cases. Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, has introduced a measure to make "receiving money for procuring a person" an offense punishable by a multi-jurisdiction grand jury. And a bill sponsored by Del. Ronald Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, would allow officers investigating trafficking sites to pursue their leads across jurisdictional lines.

These measures may not lift Virginia's Shared Hope ranking to the A level (no states score that well), but they are a start in ending this great shame. More than 100,000 children are trafficked into conventional prostitution or its "entertainment" version, pornography, in the United States each year. Their average age is 13.

And they're not just kids from the wrong side of the tracks or hellish home lives. Many come from intact, prosperous homes and are cleverly drawn into the sex racket. That must stop. The 2013 General Assembly can begin the process by supporting these bills.