By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities
WASHINGTON, December 19, 2012 – The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Fall Forum was held earlier this month in Washington D.C., and I was honored to join Oscar-winning actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, Mira Sorvino, in the plenary session of speakers. Also a wife, mother, and Harvard graduate, Mira devotes much of her time towards promoting awareness for the heinous crime of human trafficking and advocating for its victims. In her speech, she urged legislators to adopt numerous state laws aimed at preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers and buyers, and protecting victims.
During her speech, Mira unveiled a U.S. map which highlighted each state’s rating according to Polaris Project’s grading system. Polaris Project rated all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on ten categories of laws. Each state was placed in one of four tiers based on whether it had passed legislation in each of the ten categories.
Some statistics from Polaris Project:
- Twenty-one states are currently in the top category, Tier 1 (up from 11 states in 2011)
- Only four are in the bottom category of Tier 4 (down from nine states in 2011)
- One-third of states increased their rating by at least one tier
- Washington had the highest point total (with 11 out of 12)
- Wyoming was lowest (with -2 points)
- Massachusetts and West Virginia passed their first human trafficking laws in the past year
- Twenty-eight states (55%) passed new laws in the past year
- Massachusetts earned the “Most Improved” state distinction
- South Carolina, West Virginia, and Ohio were also applauded for improvements
- Wyoming has yet to pass any law against human trafficking
- Wyoming is one of Polaris Project’s “Faltering Four,” the others including Arkansas, Montana, and South Dakota
- Few states passed Safe Harbor laws
Mira Sorvino has been a long-time advocate for Safe Harbor laws being enacted in each and every state. In February of this year, she interviewed with John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) for a two-hour special on sex trafficking. In the interview, Sorvino explained how Safe Harbor laws decriminalize children (or teenagers) and offer victims support and assistance.
“It gives them access to social services,” Sorvino stated, “and really establishes that the child in prostitution is the victim of a trafficker- the pimp is the trafficker [and] the child is the victim.”
As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I am also an advocate for Safe Harbor laws. Within hours of being lured away from home by a man in 1992, I was forced and coerced into prostitution. A police officer spotted me on Pacific Avenue only thirty-six hours later. But by then, I was unrecognizable even to myself.
My lack of cooperation angered the officer, and I was arrested. I was handcuffed, insulted on the drive to the station, searched by a female officer, and then threatened with juvenile detention until I gave up my real name. By the time police detectives realized I was a victim, I had become unresponsive. I was then sent home with no counseling, no support, no transition, and no explanation as to what had just happened to me.
Within days of my “rescue,” I attempted suicide.
This is why I advocate, strongly, for Safe Harbor laws. As Mira points, child and teen victims of trafficking must be treated as children, not criminals. Victims of human trafficking need immediate aftercare and transitional services, along with follow-up support to help them as they move forward.
Polaris Projects lists the following as strong points for Safe Harbor laws:
- Strong laws grant immunity from prosecution or create the presumption that a child is a trafficking victim
- Strong laws create diversion programs away from criminal or delinquency proceedings
- Strong laws move children into services (e.g. safe shelters, mental health counseling, health care, education, etc.)
Illinois is listed with Polaris Project as having the most effective Safe Harbor law in place. Those which follow close behind include Connecticut, Washington, and Minnesota.
Safe Harbor laws are currently missing in 39 states and in D.C.
To find out where your state stands with laws like Safe Harbor, please visit Polaris Project’s 2012 State Ratings Map.
On behalf of the National Survivor Network, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the legislators who attended the conference and to beseech their sponsorship for all of the bills as outlined by Mira Sorvino and Polaris Project.