Hype over human trafficking justified, officials say

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JAN. 16, 2015 — If you look at the number of people charged with human trafficking (one) since a tough new law got enacted in 2012, you might think the need for the legislation was a bit more politically hyped than necessary.

Particularly when state officials and advocates for victims admit they really do not know how much human trafficking is going on.

But the issue is back in the media because state legislators sheepishly admit they need to correct a problem with the new law, called one of the toughest in the nation. When the proposal was written — and later passed — it didn’t include a necessary provision to add jurisdiction to the State Grand Jury to allow it to use the law to thwart instances of what Attorney General Alan Wilson calls “modern-day slavery.”

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a bill that will finish the job by giving the required jurisdiction to the State Grand Jury to investigate sex and labor trafficking. By the end of February, the incomplete 2012 law should be fixed, said a sponsor, Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg.

“It’s not controversial and doesn’t have any opposition. There’s no reason for us not to get it done,” he said, adding that then it would be up to Wilson’s office to devote the resources to alleviate suffering of those caught up in living conditions that most can’t imagine.

How real is human trafficking in South Carolina?

Since the 2012 law passed, only one person has been charged. As Wilson wrote in a recent op-ed, North Charleston police arrested a 22-year-old South Carolina man on three counts of human trafficking for “forcing three women to work as prostitutes and [he] demanded that they make $500 every night. He lined up customers through a website and forced the girls to use drugs to stay awake.”

State officials say there are active investigations that are ongoing that involve other instances of human trafficking.

One of the problems, Hutto said, is that a person who may be a target of an investigation may live in a different jurisdiction than illicit activity is occurring, which makes it difficult for law enforcement authorities to prosecute — and which is why the State Grand Jury needs the cross-county jurisdiction to investigate the crime and bring cases.

“I am convinced there is a real problem in South Carolina,” Hutto said. “I don’t know how widespread it is, but it’s in the hundreds, not just two or three [cases].”

Victim rights advocates say human trafficking exists and there have been instances of labor and sex-related trafficking in the state. But they also admit that their phones aren’t ringing off the hook with reports of people forcing youths to be prostitutes, as in the North Charleston case, or to work essentially with no pay, only room and board.

One circuit solicitor told Statehouse Report that the problem appeared to be significant, “but I don’t believe we know the full scope of the problems because it is a clandestine crime.”

Little good data exist

Quite simply, there’s little solid data on the underground culture related to human trafficking in South Carolina.

The National Human Trafficking Referral Directory, which operates a hotline for phone calls, emails and web contacts about human trafficking, said it received 153 calls from South Carolina in the first three quarters of 2014. It said the calls led them to believe there were 42 cases of human trafficking in the nine-month period.

According to the state’s 60-page plan to address human trafficking that came about last year as a result of the 2012 law, the crime takes place every day in the state. But the plan offers no numbers and few examples. It does, however, talk about the need to determine the magnitude of the problem.

“A lot of these people are severely traumatized,” said Mark Powell, spokesman for the Attorney General’s office. “We’re getting multiple requests from reporters, but haven’t found one yet ready to talk to the media.”

Political grandstanding or a grand stand?

In raw political terms, opposing human trafficking is almost a perfect issue. There’s just not any constituency, other than perhaps pimps and organized crime, who would be for it.

The South Carolina measure, which is similar to an anti-human trafficking model bill from 2008 by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, passed unanimously in the S.C. House and S.C. Senate in 2012.

In his first term as attorney general, critics point to how Wilson used his office to push political issues so much that they often decried his use of state resources to challenge the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage as political grandstanding. And while some may now quietly wonder whether the same thing is happening with Wilson’s passionate talk about human trafficking, Hutto says there’s no natural constituency with clout that will benefit the bipartisan group of politicians backing the bill.

“This is relatively obscure, but it is important to people who are truly victimized and under the radar,” Hutto said. “I don’t see any political motivation behind this. It’s just the right thing to do.”

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