A century and a half after slavery was abolished in the United States, the stain of involuntary servitude lingers on in Maryland. Immigrant laborers brought into the state by human traffickers work for little or no pay on farms and construction sites; women and girls lured by false promises of office jobs end up as virtual prisoners in homes where they serve as nannies and maids; and young people of both sexes are forced into prostitution, with the proceeds going to pimps and criminal gangs.
This archipelago of exploitation and misery is only made possible by the brutal application of force and relentless psychological coercion -- beatings, rapes, torture and murder are the commonest way of sowing fear among victims. And the criminals know that the state's laws against human trafficking are seldom enforced and are so weak that even if they are caught they are unlikely to suffer serious consequences.
Maryland's laws against human trafficking are, in fact, weaker in many respects than federal laws for the same crimes. Those lax laws, coupled with the fact that the state lies on the I-95 corridor linking it to other major trafficking centers in New York, Georgia and Florida and also has easy access to three major international airports, has made Maryland one of the hubs of a $9 billion-a-year global industry of trafficking in human beings that is among organized crime's most profitable enterprises.
That's why strengthening Maryland's laws against human trafficking should be a top priority for the General Assembly this year.
We hope lawmakers will support legislation sponsored by Dels. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher and Kathleen M. Dumais and Sen. Jennie M. Forehand that would stiffen the penalties for criminals who traffic in adult victims, along with anyone who knowingly benefits from human trafficking, or has a reasonable opportunity to observe that juveniles are being victimized.
Maryland took an important step in 2007 when it changed the law against child sex trafficking from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
But state law still treats trafficking adult women as a misdemeanor, as evidenced by last year's bungled case against Carlos Silot, whom police accused of running a brothel near Patterson Park using two women illegally brought from Mexico as prostitutes. The charges were dropped because the women never showed up to testify at Mr. Silot's trial, but even if he had been convicted, he would have served no more than 10 years. The pending legislation would make trafficking adult victims a felony with the same penalties as those for trafficking children.
Similarly, current law only targets the people directly engaged in human trafficking while ignoring the network of brothel landlords, drivers, door-keepers and bartenders who also knowingly benefit from the crime. The pending legislation would expand the law to allow prosecutors to charge these actors for their roles in aiding and abetting the traffickers. It would also make it easier to bring cases involving juveniles by adopting the federal standard for such prosecutions, which requires only that a defendant had a "reasonable opportunity to observe" the victim was a minor.
Finally, lawmakers should also adopt legislation introduced by Dels. Joanne C. Benson and Tom Hucker to require the state to post information about how trafficking victims can get help. The notices bearing the phone number of a national hotline for trafficking victims would be placed at truck stops, bus stations, highway rest stops and toll booths, as well as in strip clubs, motels and certain agricultural workplaces. Human trafficking thrives on secrecy and the social and physical isolation of its victims. To combat the problem, Maryland must not only adopt tougher penalities for those who traffic in human lives but also let their victims know the law won't let them down if they ask for help in bettering their condition.