BENNINGTON — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a human trafficking bill into law Tuesday that creates stiff penalties for offenders and protections for victims.
Proponents are hailing the new Vermont law as among the strongest in the nation. It offers state law enforcement and prosecutors tools to build cases in Vermont by criminalizing labor and sex trafficking in the state. The law also lays creates a program of services for human trafficking victims.
Shumlin, a Democrat sworn into office earlier this year, said during a signing ceremony that it was important for the state to have a comprehensive set of criminal laws dealing with labor and sex trafficking.
“The new law now ranks among the strongest anti-trafficking laws in the nation, allowing Vermont to continue our legacy of fighting slavery within our borders and around the world,” Shumlin said.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears has advocated such a law and first introduced the measure four years ago. The legislation at that time created a task force to study the issue of human trafficking. The information was used to craft the law, Sears said.
“We built on their work, and I think came out with one of the most positive bills of the session,” Sears said.
Sears, a Democrat, said his interest in the topic arose from a local construction project several years ago that had undocumented workers. “Part of my interest in this bill is from when they were building the Hampton Inn and there were a number of undocumented workers. I think it’s naive to think that with the number of undocumented workers that some of them aren’t the victim of human trafficking,” he said.
The new law “creates a very serious [state] crime for those who are involved with human trafficking,” Sears said. “It makes it a very large felony with significant fines in the $100,000 range and … 25-year sentences,” he said.
Creating a state crime category and giving local law enforcement and prosecutors the ability to go after offenders is necessary because the federal government is often “too slow to respond,” Sears said. Victims are often “scattered” by the offenders before federal authorities act, he said.
“Not only do you lose the ability to help the victims, but you lose the ability to prosecute the offenders. That’s why it’s important to have the Vermont law,” Sears said. “Part of the problem is that when it occurs we’re not able to respond to it. Frequently, we leave it to the feds, and typically the victims are gone before the feds even begin to prosecute.”
The law also creates a “safe harbor for children,” according to Sears. Children under the age of 18 who are involved in prostitution or other prohibited sexual acts because of their status as a victim of human trafficking will not be held criminally liable, he said.
“So many of these kids are involved in prostitution because of human trafficking,” he said.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at email@example.com