June 1, 2011
BOSTON — Massachusetts has the distinction of being one of just four states without its own trafficking law. But Attorney General Martha Coakley is trying to change that, pushing a human-trafficking bill that passed the Massachusetts House on Wednesday.
The legislation easily advanced to debate on Tuesday. It’s a broad bill that Coakley says is intended to punish traffickers while encouraging law enforcement to view prostitutes and laborers caught in trafficking as victims, rather than criminals themselves. Among its measures:
Criminalizing trafficking persons for sexual servitude, with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Criminalizing trafficking persons for forced labor, penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Higher penalties for those who victimize persons under 18.
Minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for second or subsequent offenses.
Allows forfeiture to the Commonwealth to be paid to victims for restitution in the prosecution of these crimes.
The House vote comes after years of inaction on a similar version of this legislation. An earlier bill sponsored by state Sen. Mark Montigny was passed by the state Senate last year, nearly 60 months after it was first proposed. But the legislation languished in the House. It died, consternating anti-trafficking advocates like Alicia Foley, who teaches law at Suffolk University.
“This has been going on for four or five years and there’s no reason for it except for infighting,” Foley said.
A Pervasive Problem
Advocates for children, prostituted women and indentured laborers say the legislation is needed more than ever in light of recent cases. In late May, police arrested a hulking Dorchester man named Norman Barnes, who is alleged to have kidnapped a 15-year-old girl. Prosecutors say he held her for 11 days and forced her to sexually service men at hotels and motels up and down Route 1, in Dorchester and in Quincy. She was able to escape after running into the lobby of a Quincy hotel.
Police say that dozens of young women in Massachusetts are being forced into prostitution and other forms of slavery on a regular basis.
“The majority of our cases do involve sex trafficking,” said Sgt. Detective Donna Gavin, a 20-year Boston Police veteran who runs the Department’s Human Trafficking Unit.
Gavin said many victims are foreign-born nationals. “Some were smuggled here. They may have paid a fee to come here, thinking they were going to have a job in a restaurant or a salon, and when they get here they are forced into prostitution,” Gavin said.
“We have young women that was trafficked in through Florida through South America. Her family was very poor. She was sold and she end up here,” Gavin recalled.
New Defenses Against Trafficking
The Coakley legislation, which is expected to become law, would provide resources to both international and domestic victims of trafficking. Some advocates believe that it will also help educate law enforcement officials about the changing dynamics of human trafficking, including the very terms that are used to describe both victims and predators. The term “child prostitute,” for example, is an anachronism. Now, pimps are viewed increasingly as ‘traffickers.’
Cherie Jimenez says the public has come a long way in the very discussion of human trafficking. Jimenez runs a program called Kim’s project, which assists women and girls impacted by the sex. Jimenez knows these mean streets first hand, having been steered into prostitution at an early age.
“The sexual exploitation of trafficked individuals are often arranged on the Internet or via phone numbers placed in alternative publications in Boston and Providence,” Jimenez said. “The sites range from hotel rooms to message parlors, and even nail salons.”
Last summer, WGBH began looking into the case of a Dorchester man who authorities believe has used his connections to the Vietnamese Community to traffic women and uses or has used salons as a front. A secret grand jury looked into his businesses dealings, but the case has yet to be resolved.
Gavin couldn’t comment extensively on the ongoing investigation, although she said investigators had seen “some trafficking of some sort.” She also says the police have been working with the area’s Vietnamese community.
“I have done awareness training with members of the Vietnamese Community. And we have done some work with tips received from the Vietnamese community. The police can’t do it alone,” Gavin said.
The U.S. State Department claims that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labor or sex worldwide every year. Thousands of them are in the United States, although these figures are also viewed as exaggerated by some experts.
Still, no one disputes that human trafficking is taking place in large numbers. But finding victims to talk about this crisis is often difficult for law enforcers. Advocates hope that the legislation finally making its way through both the Massachusetts State House and Senate will help victims who may be too afraid to help themselves.
WGBH SPECIAL REPORT: HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN BOSTON