Protecting the youngest victims of human trafficking from further trauma is the goal of a bill making its way through Harrisburg. The “Safe Harbor” bill would identify child victims of human trafficking and protect those who’ve been forced to perform illegal acts from criminal prosecution.
“The children involved here have been treated horrifically and traumatized and brutalized,” said Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery). “There is no other context that I can think of in the law where we take victims that have been treated in such a way and then subject them to the criminal justice system.”
In 2014 there were 3,598 reports of sex trafficking within the United States according to the Polaris Project. Globally, it’s estimated that about 4.5 million people are forced into sexual exploitation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that in 2014 one in six endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims; that’s up from one in seven in 2013.
Children who have been trafficked have been charged with prostitution, drug possession, loitering, and other offenses related to prostitution. SB 851 would require that sexually exploited children be diverted away from the criminal justice system and toward social services. It would also require law enforcement to report to the Department of Human Services any encounter with a minor who has been subject to sexual exploitation.
This is the latest effort to crack down on human trafficking; Leach pointed to two previous bills passed and signed into law in Pennsylvania which better define human trafficking and make it easier to identify, arrest and prosecute traffickers.
“To me, it’s the third part of the very good work we’ve done so far on human trafficking in Pennsylvania, turning it from one of the least progressive to most progressive states in dealing with this terrible issue,” he said.
The Polaris Project previously had Pennsylvania ranked near the bottom among states with laws regarding human trafficking; it has moved up in the rankings since, going from a tier three to tier one.
The Safe Harbor bill is awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.