After a nationwide FBI operation in July recovered 10 victims of human trafficking in Wisconsin, state lawmakers are circulating a bill to protect victims from being prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit during trafficking.
A survey released Tuesday by the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance found as many as 200 victims of sex and labor trafficking came into contact with service providers, the justice system, or both in 2008.
“Human trafficking is a growing concern in the state and it is time to start rethinking the issue and providing some relief to those who are unfortunately forced into this servitude,” bill sponsor Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement.
According to the FBI’s Milwaukee division, the number of juveniles recovered in the city during “Operation Cross Country” was second only to San Francisco, where 12 children were found.
Victims of trafficking often include people of all ages and lead to sexual exploitation and forced labor, often by perpetrators, or “traffickers,” who personally know the victims, according to a 2011 report from the state Department of Children and Families.
“Children rescued as a result of these types of operations are often vulnerable and have been misled with promises of food, shelter and a future, and often times, love, only to be ensnared into a life of isolation, intimidation, violence and sex trafficking,” Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement.
Dana Brueck, DOJ spokesperson, said in an email to The Badger Herald more than 15 special agents from the department’s Division of Criminal Investigation cooperated with local law enforcement and the FBI during the operation.
“I’m extremely thankful to the FBI for its leadership and all of our outstanding local law enforcement partners,” Van Hollen said. “We know child sex trafficking occurs in Wisconsin, and with newly added resources, we want those looking to prostitute children to know that their organized crime won’t be tolerated here.”
The WOJA survey also found most respondents do not perceive human trafficking as a problem in the state. However, of the cases that were reported, most were perpetrated by the victims’ family members.
In addition, knowledge and understanding of human trafficking is extremely limited. Only 7 percent of justice system agencies have had training in the issue, according to the statement from Young and fellow bill sponsor Rep. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee.
“We try to mobilize the community in Dane County and make people realize that this really is something going on. It is a homegrown problem,” JoAnn Gruber-Hagen, spokesperson for SlaveFree Madison, said.
Johnson said in the statement she is also working on a separate bill with Sen. Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee, to redefine human trafficking in the legal system.
According to Young, current laws prevent prosecutors from successfully convicting criminals involved in trafficking. The current definition requires prosecutors to demonstrate that the trafficking occurred without the victim’s consent.
Young said this definition is problematic because of the level of mental manipulation traffickers can exert on their victims, making this bill necessary.
“We can hold more traffickers accountable while deterring others, and we can also help rebuild the integrity of those trafficked, putting them in a position to help other victims,” Young said.
Young and Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.