Virginia closes legal gap on sex trafficking

Twenty-five years after the hit movie “Pretty Woman,” Virginia is getting more serious about sex trafficking.

By Lyndsey Raynor | Capital News Service

With the passage of House Bill 1964 and Senate Bill 1188, Virginia is the final state in the nation to enact a stand-alone law against human trafficking, officials say. Both bills were passed unanimously in the General Assembly and have been signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Statistics show why such legislation is needed.

There are 25 active cases against human traffickers in Henrico County, according to Mike Feinmel, the assistant commonwealth’s attorney there. Last year, Fairfax County received reports of 79 traffickers, but the state could prosecute only 10, Bill Wolfe, the lead detective for the Fairfax County Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit.

“Four or five years ago, when I got thrown into human trafficking, I really didn’t know what it was,” Wolfe said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second fastest-growing crime in the U.S. Officials say that is because traffickers often can make a lot of money without getting caught.

The sponsors of the bills – Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg – held a press conference Wednesday to highlight the new law and the problem it seeks to address.

“The threat of sex trafficking is far closer to home than many realize. And in the General Assembly, we are committed to eradicating this crime against our young people,” Hugo said. “This stand-alone statute will send traffickers and buyers the message that they are not welcome here; and that our kids are not for sale in Virginia. Not now, and not ever.”

In 2011, Virginia received a grade of F for its laws on child sex trafficking from the anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International. The state worked to raise its grade in 2013 but still received a D for failing to have a specific law against human trafficking.

Since then, Virginia lawmakers sought to fill key gaps in the state’s sex trafficking laws. This is the fourth anti-trafficking bill that Hugo has introduced in the past five years.

Shared Hope International launched a campaign called Kids Are Not For Sale to advocate for a strong law against sex trafficking in Virginia. The group assembled a supportive coalition that included law enforcement officers, prosecutors, service providers, advocacy groups, schools, and hospitals.

The law now:

  • Clearly defines the offense of sex trafficking.
  • Establishes severe penalties for people convicted of trafficking.
  • Makes child sex trafficking a Class 3 felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
  • Assists in protecting and identifying sex trafficking victims.
  • Closes a loophole in Virginia’s existing laws by criminalizing the recruitment of minors and adults for commercial sex.

Moreover, under the new law, prosecutors do not have to prove that force, intimidation, or deception was used to cause a minor to engage in commercial sexual conduct. This will make it easier to get convictions, officials said.

Hugo said the average age of child sex trafficking victims is 13-and some are as young as 3 or 4.

Speakers at the press conference said the new law was not the end of the fight. What’s next, Obenshain said, is developing a statewide network of resources to help victims of sex trafficking by providing them with shelter, food, substance abuse therapy, psychological therapy, job skills, and life skills.

“Sadly, it is a problem here in Virginia,” Obenshain said. He called this year’s legislation “a critical new tool for law enforcement to have in fighting this rapidly growing criminal enterprise. We couldn’t have done it without the hard work of colleagues in the General Assembly as well as the advocacy and support of the Kids Are Not For Sale in Virginia Coalition.”

Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, supported the legislation. He noted that this year marked the 25th anniversary of “Pretty Woman,” in which Richard Gere’s character hires a prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, only to fall in love. That plot is hardly the reality of sex trafficking, Bell said.

“This is not about meeting Richard Gere and getting married,” Bell said. “It’s about a 12-year-old in the back of an SUV who has been taken away from her family and friends and is now in the sex trade, having to service 10 guys a night.”

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