Prosecutors in Pennsylvania have charged dozens of people for human trafficking since a tougher law took effect in 2014.
The new law laid out clear criteria to charge traffickers, including threatening harm, seizing victims’ personal property or holding them in servitude to pay off a debt, along with 10 other factors.
This represents a significant change in how the state handles human trafficking cases, said Shea Rhodes, director of Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation.
“In order to prosecute a case, you need to have elements of a crime to prove,” she said Friday at a seminar on trafficking at Duquesne University. “We didn’t have a statute with elements of a crime to prove. Now, we do.”
She estimated 32 people have been convicted under Pennsylvania’s law. More have gone to jail on federal convictions.
But Rhodes and and other advocates say the state could still do more.
Rhodes said she’s hopeful a bill she helped write will pass the Legislature. It would offer immunity to children who are sex trafficked to ensure they are not charged with prostitution or other related crimes.
Pennsylvania should also address a gap between federal and state law to allow prosecutors to target someone who “patronizes” or “advertises” a victim, she said.
The state’s current law is among the most robust in the nation, said Judy Hale Reed, legal advocacy manager for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. It came on the heels of an effort to fill bus terminals and motels across the state with flyers displaying a national hotline to help trafficking victims.
But she said that effort could still go further. Victims don’t always recognize they’re being trafficked without seeing examples of what constitutes trafficking, so they don’t know to call when they see the number, she said.
The opioid epidemic is another area of increasing concern to victims' advocates.
“When a person is addicted, they’ll do anything for their next hit,” Hale Reed said.
The cycle often goes like this: A trafficker offers a drug, then withholds more to make the victim compliant. Only when the victim does as the trafficker orders, does he or she receive more of the drug.
Hale Reed said she’s heard of this happening recently both in Pittsburgh and rural parts of southwestern Pennsylvania.