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Sweeping NJ human trafficking bill advanced

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

A state Senate panel yesterday approved bipartisan legislation to crack down on human trafficking, better support its victims and educate the public — particularly johns.

The Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act addresses a crime estimated to claim up to 20 million victims worldwide.

NJ State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (Bergen)

“There are two important messages contained in this bill. To victims: You’re not alone. To perpetrators: We’re coming after you,” said one of the measure’s primary sponsors, state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

In drafting the legislation, the Bergen County lawmaker spent the better part of last year gathering information at meetings with experts and advocates, including the NJ Coalition against Human Trafficking, an alliance comprised of the Junior League, the NJ Catholic Conference, The League of Women Voters and the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, among other organizations.

“Victims are often children and vulnerable women who are too afraid and dependent on traffickers to break their silence and seek help,” she said.  “Many times they are exploited for years and coerced into prostitution, labor, and drug activity.

“When they finally have a chance to regain their freedom, they are prosecuted for the crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved,” Vainieri Huttle said, “while the real perpetrators remain untouched by the law.

“With this bill, we hope to change all that.”

Its objective is to revise and expand New Jersey’s current laws to:

  • create a new human trafficking commission;
  • upgrade certain penalties on existing human trafficking or related crimes;criminalize additional activities related to human trafficking;
  • increase protections afforded human trafficking victims;
  • provide for increased training and public awareness about the problem.

The 15-member commission, created within the state Department of Law and Public Safety, would “evaluate existing laws concerning human trafficking and enforcement, as well as review existing victim assistance programs, and promote a coordinated response by public and private resources for victims of human trafficking,” Assembly Democrats said yesterday.

The bill would also establish a separate, non-lapsing, dedicated “Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund,” administered by the Attorney General’s Office with recommendations from the commission, to provide services to victims of human trafficking and promote awareness of the crime.

At the same time, the measure dramatically increases fines and penalties for activities associated with human trafficking (the fines would go into the assistance fund):

“Any form of criminal human trafficking, such as recruiting individuals or financing an operation, would be a crime of the first degree with a fine of at least $25,000;

“Anyone who knowingly owns, controls, manages, leases or supervises a premises where human trafficking is carried on, and fails to make a reasonable effort to eject the tenant or notify law enforcement authorities would be charged with a crime of the first degree, carrying a term of imprisonment of 10 to 20 years, a fine of at least $25,000, or both;

“Anyone who promotes prostitution by transporting a person into or within the state for that purpose or knowingly leases or permits a place to be used for that purpose would be charged with a crime of the third degree, punishable by imprisonment of three to five years; a fine of up to $15,000; or both; and

“A person would be strictly liable for a crime of the first degree for holding, recruiting, luring, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining, by any means, a child under 18 years of age to engage in sexual activity, whether or not the actor mistakenly believed that the child was 18 years of age or older, even if that mistaken belief was reasonable.

“Anyone who advertises commercial sexual abuse of a minor, such as escort services, would be charged with a crime of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment of 10 to 20 years, a fine of at least $25,000 but not more than $200,000; or both.”

The bill also allows human trafficking victims to file a civil claim even if there’s no criminal prosecution, and expedites the eviction process for tenants engaged in human trafficking.

There’s more:

The act establishes the “John School Rehabilitative Program” to educate johns about the health risks and legal consequences of hiring a hooker.

Modeled after similar “john school” programs in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and West Palm Beach, the program would take in offenders who must pay $500 fines — $200 of which would go to the surivor’s fund, $100 of which would go to the arresting municipality toward providing incentives for investigation and enforcement, and $200 to cover the cost of the “school.”

The bill would also mandate law enforcement training on responding to the needs of human trafficking victims.

Although the state Division of Criminal Justice has reported 179 cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey over the past seven years, experts estimate that countless thousands occur each year statewide.

At the national level, the U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 men, women and children are illegally trafficked into the country annually.

The measure was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and now awaits consideration by the full Senate.

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