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(TRENTON) An Assembly panel on Thursday approved sweeping bipartisan legislation sponsored on the Democratic side by Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Cleopatra Tucker, Peter Barnes III, Angel Fuentes, Linda Stender and Shavonda Sumter to crackdown on human trafficking.
The legislation builds upon nearly a year's worth of research and consultations with experts and advocates to tackle a growing crime that is estimated to claim up to 20 million victims worldwide.
"Until recently, human trafficking has remained largely in the shadows of society," said Vainieri Huttle. "Victims are often children and vulnerable women who are too afraid and dependent on traffickers to break their silence and seek help. Many times they are exploited for years and coerced into prostitution, labor, and drug activity. When they finally have a chance to regain their freedom, they are prosecuted for the crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved, while the real perpetrators remain untouched by the law. With this bill, we hope to change all that."
The sponsors noted that although the Division of Criminal Justice has reported 179 cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey in the past seven years, experts estimate that there are actually thousands of incidents occurring each year in the state. On a national level, the U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States annually, on top of the 100,000 victims who are already in the country when they are enslaved. This reporting discrepancy is often attributed to victims' fear of coming forward.
During the hearing, the committee also heard testimony from Ingrid Johnson of Irvington whose daughter was 13 when she became a victim of human trafficking. Johnson struggled for two years, largely on her own, to find her daughter and was eventually successful in locating her at age 15. Her daughter is now a junior in college, but her story underscores the need for a strong, coordinated law enforcement network in place
"Human trafficking is a vast and often highly secretive crime," said Barnes (D-Middlesex), who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "We must be more coordinated and sophisticated to crack down on this illegal trade, especially with the Super Bowl headed our way in 2014. Statistics from other bowl games have shown a sharp increase in human trafficking leading up the event."
The comprehensive legislation (A-3352) would crack down on every aspect of trafficking by revising and expanding the state's current laws to create a new human trafficking commission, criminalize additional activities related to human trafficking, upgrade certain penalties on existing human trafficking or related crimes, increase protections afforded to victims of human trafficking, and provide for increased training and public awareness on human trafficking issues.
In drafting the legislation, Vainieri Huttle spent the better part of this year gathering input by meeting with experts and advocates, including the NJ Coalition against Human Trafficking, an alliance comprised of diverse organizations, including the Junior League, the NJ Catholic Conference, The League of Women Voters and the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
"With the importance President Obama has begun to place on this issue, the world is starting to wake up to the realities of this crime," said Tucker (D-Essex). "It's time for all of us to stand together and send a strong message to those that prey on the weak and vulnerable that we're not going to take it anymore."
Specifically, the bill would establish a 15-member Commission on Human Trafficking, to be located in the Department of Law and Public Safety, which would evaluate existing laws concerning human trafficking and enforcement, as well as review existing victim assistance programs, and promote a coordinated response by public and private resources for victims of human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is not just a crime that touches on developing nations or those wishing to immigrate," said Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester). "It is thriving in the United States and many victims are vulnerable teenagers targeted by predatory criminals looking to profit off their weaknesses. This bill will help cut traffickers off at the knees and take away many of their resources."
"I was proud to sponsor the first law in 2005 that cracked down on human trafficking because at the time there was little attention being paid to the issue," said Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/ Union). "Now I'm pleased that this multi-pronged approach will increase penalties and fines and expand law enforcement training. By turning up the heat on these perpetrators and targeting many of the havens where human trafficking is able to fester, hopefully we can begin to put an end to this horrific industry."
Additionally, the bill would establish a separate, non-lapsing, dedicated fund known as the "Human Trafficking Survivor's Assistance Fund," which would be administered by the Attorney General's Office with recommendations from the commission, to provide services to victims of human trafficking and promote awareness of the crime.
To that end, the bill takes aim at those that promote or enable human trafficking by sharply increasing fines and penalties for activities associated with human trafficking. All fines collected would be deposited in the "Human Trafficking Survivor's Assistance Fund," including:
The bill would also create an expedited removal process for tenants engaged in human trafficking and allow any person injured as a result of human trafficking to file a civil claim, regardless of whether or not a criminal prosecution of human trafficking occurred.
Furthermore, the bill would establish the "John School Rehabilitative Program" to educate anyone who has been convicted of engaging a prostitute ("johns") about the health risks and legal ramifications of their unlawful activity. Each defendant would be subject to a penalty of $1,000 to be deposited in the "Human Trafficking Survivor's Assistance Fund." The program is modeled after similar "john school" programs that have been implemented in Buffalo, New York; Brooklyn, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and West Palm Beach, Florida.
The bill would also mandate law enforcement training on responding to the needs of victims of human trafficking.
"There are two important messages contained in this bill. To victims: You're not alone. To perpetrators: We're coming after you," added Vainieri Huttle. "We're taking a spotlight and shining it on this issue so that it can't operate in the shadows anymore."
The measure now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.
To read more, please visit the New Jersey General Assembly Democratic Office Web site.
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