Stronger human, sex trafficking law in force

Pandering measure is now felony crime

new task force due

October 04, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

It is a crime with an ominous ring - human trafficking - and it occurs when boys and girls and men and women are forced to have sex with strangers or work in unimaginable conditions under the threat of physical harm or some other form of intimidation.

Outreach workers and law enforcement officials say they suspect that human trafficking is a growing problem in Baltimore, but, until recently, Maryland's law against it lacked teeth. Pimping a child for sex with adults was a misdemeanor, and forced labor wasn't adequately addressed. That changed Monday when a new, stronger law went into effect.

"We want to keep children safe and women and men safe from being further victimized," said city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, an advocate for the change in law.

The General Assembly voted this year to expand the existing pandering law to make sex trafficking of a minor a felony crime.

The bill also added language to the state's extortion law that makes it possible to prosecute labor traffickers and those who conspire with them.

News accounts have increased public awareness of human trafficking. This year, a Prince George's County man pleaded guilty to federal sex trafficking charges after he forced two Baltimore girls to work as prostitutes in Washington.

In August last year, federal agents broke up an extensive prostitution ring that supplied Korean women smuggled into this country to brothels along the East Coast, including a Baltimore County massage parlor.

Today, Jessamy and state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler are to announce creation of a statewide human trafficking task force. Jessamy's office is also hosting a human trafficking training conference for law enforcement officials and other interested parties today at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"These cases do occur, and when they do they are very sad," said Gansler. "I hope the task force will help us to identify human trafficking cases and more effectively prosecute them."

Gansler said the task force, which will include Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein and members of the outreach community, will create an atmosphere in which members can share information, coordinate statewide suppression and awareness efforts and provide needed services to victims. They said they also hope the task force will serve as a data center for information on trafficking: Who is involved, and where it is happening?

"[Changing state law] was a priority for the women's caucus in Annapolis," said state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Democrat from Montgomery County who introduced the bill to expand Maryland's existing law to address sex and human trafficking. "I think the stories about human trafficking are out, and people want to do something about this crime."

However, even as local officials prepare to launch new efforts in combating sex and human trafficking, they acknowledge they have little evidence to prove that it is a widespread problem. They say they believe the handful of federal cases prosecuted recently is only the tip of the iceberg, and that instinct tells them the need for stepped-up enforcement is great.

A Sept. 23 front-page article in The Washington Post also raised questions about the expenditure of federal and local dollars to catch sex and human traffickers. The newspaper reported that the federal government had identified 1,362 victims of human trafficking since 2000. But Jessamy, who has written a response to the article, said that many victims are never identified.

"Local police have encountered scores of runaway or `throwaway' children who are being prostituted - sometimes by members of their own family," Jessamy wrote in her letter to the newspaper. "By simply driving through certain urban streets one can find children taught to perform sexual services for the gratification of one adult and the financial gain of another."

In a recent interview, Jessamy said that local and federal law enforcement officials have investigated possible trafficking cases in underground Latino, Korean, Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian brothels in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. She said she is hopeful that Maryland's new law will make enforcement, and prosecution, easier.

"There are all kinds of benefits to what we are talking about," she said. "There's prevention and protection."

Sid Ford, executive director of You Are Never Alone, a Baltimore outreach program that works with girls and women who have been trafficked, said that many people she talks to still don't know that U.S. citizens also are being exploited. She said there are thousands of teenagers who run away from home in Maryland and end up being exploited sexually by adults who promise to help or shelter them.

"People don't know that this is happening to U.S. citizens," she said. "It's happening right under our noses."

Assistant State's Attorney Joyce Lombardi, who worked to draft legislation to change the law, said she is confident that more human trafficking victims will be identified in Maryland now that the crime is "on the map."

"People are going to come across these cases," Lombardi said. "Local police will come across them when they investigate domestic violence calls or look into an assault on a woman by her pimp. Guess what, that's a sex trafficking case.

"It's going to take years for this to get off the ground. Today is just a start, but it is a great start."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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