Are Cities Punishing Human Trafficking Victims?

Recent local legislative actions in major U.S. cities show alarming ignorance of state and federal law regarding human trafficking, and put those cities in danger of violating the constitutional rights and legal protections of vulnerable persons. Local actions are extremely important and directly impact the national and global treatment of women and children.

On November 11, 2012 the City of St. Louis, Missouri passed an ordinance to remove “prostitutes” from St. Louis’ streets. This ordinance makes no provision for screening “prostitutes” for human trafficking victims, even though human trafficking victims’ presence in street level commercial sexual exploitation is well known and documented. Nor does the ordinance mention or take action against the buyers of prostituted or trafficked persons. That local law targets women and girls, leaving men free to go elsewhere to drive the market for commercial sex and human trafficking.

If the girls enduring commercial sexual expl0itation are under age 18, they are victims of human trafficking, and yet nothing in the St. Louis ordinance screens for victims of sex trafficking. The ordinance is not going after the pimps, traffickers and buyers, yet federal and state laws give law enforcement plenty of ammunition to do so.

Atlanta’s Chief of Police George Turner has “asked the city council to approve a so-called banishment law, whereby on first offense the ‘prostitute’ would be ordered not to return to the area in which she was arrested, and on second offense she would be banished from the city altogether.” Men who bought or attempted to buy sex from her would not be banished. In response, at public discussions of the proposed ordinance residents and social workers tried to persuade lawmakers and law enforcement to produce resources to help the women “instead of finding new ways to put them in jail.”

Other major cities such as Kansas City, Missouri and San Francisco have instituted remediation and education of buyers of sex that are proving effective in reducing commercial sexual exploitation and thereby human trafficking. Chicago is posting photos and stats of individuals arrested for soliciting prostitution. Advocates and researchers agree that addressing demand for commercial sex is critical in curbing human trafficking.

Ask your mayor, your aldermen, your sheriff, your police chief how prostitution is handled in your town. Ask them if they screen for the presence of human trafficking, if they investigate pimps, if they arrest the men who buy sex. Look for news reports about these kinds of laws. Vote for local candidates who understand and care about human trafficking victims and who do not vilify women. Demand that women and children be treated with dignity and respect. And when laws such as these from St. Louis and Atlanta are proposed or passed, stand up and say no.

Learn more at Margaret Howard’s Huffington Post article: Is Your City Government Punishing Human Trafficking Victims?


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