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Virginia Lawmakers Battle Human Trafficking
Thursday, January 27, 2011

Virginia lawmakers battle human trafficking

By Fredrick Kunkle

Nothing draws a crowd like the phrase "human trafficking" or "21st Century slave," and so no less than eight lawmakers from both major parties packed a press conference Wednesday in Richmond to discuss the transnational exploitation of human beings lured into prostitution or other forced labor against their will.

Even Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) was there---in spirit, anyway. In an unusual cross-party alliance, one of the legislature's most liberal members, Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), read aloud the governor's proclamation of support combatting human trafficking.

The lineup -- Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg), and Dels. David B. Bulova (D-Fairfax), Barbara Comstock (R-Fairfax), Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax), Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) -- stood behind measures such as Ebbin's HB2190, which would require the Department of Social Services to develop a comprehensive program to combat human trafficking.

Others would make the penalties more severe for human trafficking, and especially on those who deal in children.

Watts' HB1893, would expand the kidnapping statute to cover anyone who "recruits, entices or solicits" someone to perform services or work under duress and deprives the person of liberty.

Comstock's measure, HB2440 would allow someone charged with prostitution to interpose an affirmative defense evidence that he or she had been coerced into the act, thereby excusing the crime. Comstock's bill would also allow a person to expunge a prostitution conviction by showing that he or she was coerced.

"Trafficking isn't limited to Thailand, it is happening in Tysons," Comstock said, quoting a letter from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) pledging federal help for the problem.

Michelle Rickert, who is a Liberty University professor, and several other advocates depicted the problem as both widespread and yet invisible. Another speaker cited the U.S. State Department estimate of 12.3 million adults and children in bonded labor or forced prostitution. Nathan D. Wilson, chief executive and founder of Project Meridian Foundation, said as many as 84 percent of all escort service employees are enslaved.

Wilson called for longer prison time for those who are convicted of having lured other adults into prostitution or operated a network of prostitutes, and going after pimps with stronger prosecutions the way that the federal government has gone after drug traffickers.

"We can't call them pimps anymore," Wilson said. "But if I call him a trafficker--because he's actually making mobile, one person from one location to another -- that's trafficking. Now, guess what -- we can bring in the RICO Act."

In explaining the need for more resources, they said that Virginia ranked among the top 10 states as the source of calls to a national human trafficking hotline, and yet ackowledged that the state has only had a few convictions in recent years.

But skeptics, while acknowledging that human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution exists, say the problem has also been exaggerated in recent years. Several have challenged the numerical estimates of human trafficking, particularly in light of the very low number of proven cases and convictions.

Reason.com, citing the work of an independent consultant, said Congress "prefers to address the embarrassing lack of victims by creating more of them" and suggested that the real target of the campaign is the global sex trade, not trafficking.

Ebbin said he understands that the numbers are difficult to pin down.
"I'm not suggesting that numbers are hundreds of thousands of Virginians," Ebbin said,
"but even if the numbers are low it still needs to be combatted."

Paid for by Friends of Barbara Comstock.