Legislation seeking to crack down on human trafficking was introduced to the state Legislature with bipartisan support Monday.
The new state law is aimed at combating problems in the legal system that allow people suspected of human trafficking to go without prosecution. There is currently a federal law against human trafficking, but Wisconsin does not have state laws on the subject.
"Because it was a federal law, it gave authority to federal law enforcement," said Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz, R-Menomonee Falls, a sponsor of the bill. "This gives it to our local people."
Jeskewitz added the legislation has many supporters, including Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and various district attorneys.
"The district attorneys feel we have to clarify current law with regards to penalties in this area, as well as provide some shelter to people who are not citizens of this country," said bill co-sponsor Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend.
Another aspect of the proposal aims to help people who are victims of economic exploitation and fear having to go to federal authorities, said Frederick Kessler, D-Milwaukee, another sponsor of the bill.
"We want to make sure they don't only have to go to federal court," Kessler said. "Basically if you are not from Madison or Milwaukee, you usually don't go to federal authorities. People don't know who to go to."
The bill defines human trafficking as "recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining an individual without the consent of the individual."
Human trafficking would be made a felony offense in Wisconsin under this legislation, and the state could charge anyone suspected of "trafficking or knowingly benefiting from trafficking for labor, services or a commercial sex act."
"Think of it as slavery –when Joe Black brings a person to the state and sells them for financial gain," Jeskewitz said.
Jeskewitz added the bill was sent to all members of the Republican-controlled Assembly and the Democratic-controlled Senate Monday to seek out anyone who wishes to co-sponsor the bill.
The penalty for someone convicted of human trafficking under this bill would be a fine up to $100,000, imprisonment for up to 25 years, or both. Child trafficking would carry a maximum fine of $100,000, imprisonment of up to 40 years, or both.
The bill says if a business is involved with human trafficking, legislation would allow for prosecutors "to seek dissolution" or revoke the company’s authorization to conduct business in the state.
Wisconsin would join 35 other states that currently have laws against human trafficking. There are also nine states that have pending legislation concerning human trafficking.
The case that brought the issue to the public's attention in Wisconsin involved two Milwaukee area doctors, Jefferson and Elnora Calimlim, who were convicted of human trafficking in May 2006 by the Federal Justice Department.
The couple was convicted for confining a Philippine woman for 19 years of forced labor in their Brookfield home.
"This issue isn't something people talk about a lot in this state," Jeskewitz said. "But it is becoming more of a problem."
The legislation also allows a defense for trafficking victims who involuntarily commit offenses.
According to an Office of Justice Programs website, an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people from foreign countries are trafficked into the United States each year. Children from within the United States are also at risk, with an estimated 200,000 being sold into the sex trade each year.