WASHINGTON, January 4, 2012 ― Trafficking victims in Virginia have few options for help. Unlike other states, Virginia is continuing to struggle to implement a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation. Without strong laws, children remain particularly vulnerable to traffickers and have nowhere to turn.
Shared Hope International, an anti-human trafficking organization based in Vancouver, Washington, recently highlighted the plight of sex trafficking of minors in Virginia. The report, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) in Virginia says lack of comprehensive anti-human trafficking laws lead law enforcement to criminalize victims, ignore the magnatude of the crime, and impose light penalties on traffickers.
According to Shared Hope International, police officers and social workers in Virginia often misidentify DMST victims as criminals. One law enforcement officer in Richmond responded to a researcher’s interview as follows:
“If we have a 17-year-old prostitute, there’s going to be a criminal offense there. We’ll [think] ‘hey, you’re out here; you’re doing an act of prostitution; we’re going to arrest you as a juvenile… Is this an individual who is in need of some help or this individual is making a life choice that this is what they want to do at 17 or 17 and a half years old.”
Minors convicted of prostitution often are incarcerated. One survivor of human trafficking says that incarceration was just as traumatic as forced prostitution:
“The system didn’t know what to do with me…I mean, they didn’t treat me like a kid. They treated me like a criminal.”
Current Virginia law contradicts federal human trafficking law. Federal trafficking law treats all children engaged in prostitution as victims. In Virginia, however, the state law assumes that children between 15 and 17 are able to consent to commercial sex acts and are criminals, not victims forced into the sex trade.
While many professionals in Virginia deny the DMST occurrence in Virginia, reported incidents confirm that DMST cases are rather widespread throughout the state:
In March 2011, Police in Newport News made 24 arrests as part of an undercover operation targeting prostitution. Police arrested five women including a 17 year old girl for prostitution related charges. Police charged a 19 year-old perpetrator from Norfolk with contributing to the delinquency of minor.
In 2008, police arrested 21-year-old Breanna Ligget of Chesapeake, Virginia, for prostitution and other related crimes. After posting ads on Craigslist, Ligget agreed to meet with an undercover cop at a local motel. Police said that Liggett also brought her 17-year-old sister with her and offered a “two girl show.”
In 2007, Virginia Beach Police arrested 38-year-old woman, Silesia Rogowski, for running a prostitution ring. After receiving 20 calls to a resident house for complaints of domestic violence, drug abuse, and disputes, investigators eventually believed that the house might be a den of prostitution and drugs advertised on Craigslist.org. Neighbors also stated to police that they have witnessed minors in and out of the house.
The report says lack of a comprehensive law contributes to the ignorance of the crime occurrence among professionals in Virginia. Because human trafficking isn’t a stand alone crime in Virginia, authorities have prosecuted traffickers under general sexual offenses like, rape, pandering, or others, rather than human trafficking. Hence, statistics on human trafficking cases isn’t readily available to policymakers.
Traffickers sometimes walk free after receiving minor penalties under current Virginia law. In all cases mentioned above, the authorities charged traffickers with the contribution to the delinquency of minor, which can carry a prison sentence less than a year.
Under federal law, a trafficker can spend up to life in prison for committing the same exact offense.
Advocates argue that a state’s comprehensive law will end criminalizing victims and start imposing heavy penalties on traffickers.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli disagrees. He argues that law enforcement already has the tools to fight human trafficking and that the expansion of the current law rather than creating a new laws is better way to end the crime. During the interview with nbc29, he said:
“On a government policy side, I don’t think we’re at a point where it warrants spending state dollars on creating essentially a new social welfare program,” he said…The structure of the law, to me, isn’t the critical thing,”…”It’s do you cover the battlefield? And we do.”
Last year, Virginia passed three bills to improve its anti-human trafficking efforts. Since then, Polaris Project also recognized Virginia as one of the states with the most improved anti-human trafficking legislations in 2011.
Still, some experts argue that Virginia is far from where it should be when tackling demand and protecting victims. This year, advocates are hoping that will change as well.
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