Thursday, September 11, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas did more than any other state last year to strengthen laws against human trafficking, according to a national advocacy group called the Polaris Project.
            The legislature will build on those accomplishments, judging from the response of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth to recommendations presented by the Attorney General’s State Task Force for the Prevention of Human Trafficking.
            A senator on the committee was encouraged by the fact that many of the recommendations focused on improved education and coordination among law enforcement agencies and social service agencies.  The cost to taxpayers would be relatively minor, and would greatly benefit victims.
            For example, when adolescent females are coerced into prostitution and forced to travel away from home, they are victims of human trafficking.  When law enforcement agencies discover them, officers sometimes charge them with a criminal offense because that is a quick method of getting them off the streets and into shelter. New legislation will give law officers more options, so they can take the victims to a social service agency if that appears to be the best choice for the victim.
                        For about $3.3 million the state could provide services for minors who otherwise would be charged with prostitution or truancy.  Services such as creating a “safe harbor” program for juveniles trying to escape from traffickers would be funded by fees imposed on violators of human trafficking laws.
            Another recommendation is for more training of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, public defenders and judges, so that they are able to balance their views of human trafficking victims, recognizing them as victims as much as criminals.
            Also, the task force recommended adding two employees to the attorney general’s office to staff a clearinghouse for all calls to the Arkansas Human Trafficking Hotline. They would ensure that calls are forwarded to the most appropriate agency. They would also help compile data about human trafficking violations.
            One recommendation that may generate opposition would expand the number of public sites where signs would be posted with the Human Trafficking Hotline number. Act 1157 of 2013 requires the signs to be posted at strip clubs, airports, private clubs that serve alcohol but not food, hotels that have been cited as a public nuisance because of prostitution, train stations, bus stations and private businesses that offer showers, fuel, food and bathrooms.
The task force recommended adding campgrounds, state parks, schools from sixth to twelfth grade , restaurants and hotels. However, legislators have already heard concerns from the hospitality industry that wide scale posting of signs at popular tourist destinations may send a message to visitors that Arkansas is a center for human trafficking.
            In the 2013 session the legislature enacted several new laws on human trafficking.  Statutes already on the books covered sex crimes and kidnapping.  The new laws defined human trafficking when minors are victimized and forced into prostitution.  They added human trafficking to the list of offenses for which a violator’s motor vehicle or aircraft can be forfeited, if it is used to carry out the crime.
            The package of 2013 laws established several of the programs that the legislature will consider expanding in 2015. Generally speaking, they recognize that sexually exploited children should receive social services rather than be prosecuted as criminals.

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