Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Does Wyo. need laws for human trafficking? - Wyoming Tribune Eagle Online

Source: Wyoming Tribune Eagle Online

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A report ranks Wyoming lowest in the nation when it comes to having laws to combat the crime. But state officials say there are adequate tools to prosecute cases on the federal level.

By Trevor Brown

CHEYENNE -- Wyoming prosecutors and human-rights activists disagree over whether the state needs stricter laws to fight human trafficking.

The Polaris Project released a report Tuesday that gives Wyoming the lowest marks in the nation in its look at state laws used to combat human trafficking, punish traffickers and support survivors.

Wyoming is the only state without statutes that specifically address human trafficking.

Mary Ellison with the Polaris Project said this diminishes Wyoming’s ability to fight the crimes.

“We are seeing more cases being presented to local law enforcement officials and local prosecutors,” she said. “They need these additional tools.”

But Wyoming officials respond that the state’s system of referring cases to the federal level is working.

Wyoming Attorney General Greg Phillips said it makes more sense for the state to leverage the resources of the U.S. Attorney’s Office than to have local communities handle the few cases that come up.

“The federal penalties are extremely harsh for that type of awful behavior,” Phillips said. “Because we have so much cooperation among local, state and federal officials, we have as good as a system as any other state.”

Jim Anderson, an assistant U.S. attorney based out of Cheyenne, agrees. He said there are “sufficient tools” already in place to prosecute cases in Wyoming.

He added that Wyoming is unique because of its small population and geography. He said his office has dealt with only two sex-trafficking cases in the past five years.

“We just don’t have that type of activity that other states have,” Anderson said. “And when cases are brought to the attention of law enforcement, they are treated appropriately.”

He added that many trafficking cases occur with runaway teens who are coerced into prostitution. But Wyoming does not see as many of these runaway cases as other states, he said.

But some advocates say human trafficking is a bigger problem locally than most assume.

Daniel DeCecco, Wyoming’s volunteer advocacy leader for the International Justice Mission, said he has talked with several victims and researched reports in the state where the cases never make it to the prosecution level.

“It is an issue that usually stays under the radar, but having a state law could help that,” DeCecco said. “Because Wyoming is such a large and rural state, (trafficking cases) are something that can happen without getting a lot of attention.”

A student at the University of Wyoming, DeCecco said he is lobbying lawmakers to pass a compressive trafficking act as early as next session.

He said in addition to raising awareness, new state laws could also provide more outreach and support for victims who are needed to come forward to report the crimes.

The Polaris Project report did not take into account the general anti-trafficking efforts of task forces, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, service providers and advocates in the states.

Instead, it looked solely at the state statutes ranging from criminal penalties to victim’s assistance services.

Ellison said most of the nation has been quick to pass state laws improving their fight against trafficking in the past eight years.

She added that only four states had anti-trafficking statutes in 2004. With the exception of Wyoming, all other states and the District of Columbia now have some form of the law.

Massachusetts was one of the last remaining states that did not have its own trafficking law.

But it passed a compressive bill last November that included imposing steeper penalties for traffickers, creating an interagency taskforce to improve victim services and boosting training for law enforcement officials.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said the efforts already have raised awareness of the issue and helped the state crack down on cases.

“In my experience as a prosecutor, if we saw a problem but didn’t have the tools to fix it, it doesn’t matter how well your intentions are,” she said in a teleconference during the unveiling of Polaris Project’s report. “Having those tools and training at the state level are critical.”

The Polaris Project’s report comes about eight months after a similar study, which was also critical of Wyoming’s lack of human-trafficking laws, was released by Shared Hope International.

Phillips said he sent a letter to the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee following the release of that report. He said he told legislators that they might want to consider crafting legislation, if only to bring more attention to the issue.

But he maintains that Wyoming is one of the most capable states to combat and prosecute trafficking cases.

“The only real benefit I see in (passing a state law) is if we, in some point in the distant future, had a U.S. attorney who did not make this issue a priority,” he said. “But I really don’t see that happening.”
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