Thursday, September 6, 2012

Turning Things Around

            Massachusetts has come a long way in the past year.

            Just last September, we were one of five states with absolutely no law dealing with sex trafficking, and one of only two states with zero laws addressing labor trafficking. The first of the original thirteen states to abolish slavery had become one of the last places in the country where traffickers could operate with near-impunity. How the mighty had fallen.

But after years of being increasingly left behind by other states in the fight against human trafficking, Massachusetts finally redeemed itself last November. Its Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People includes nearly everything that Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors each state’s progress in fighting slavery, recommends for state anti-trafficking laws.  The Act makes no provision for advertising or providing a human trafficking hotline to current slaves, and nor does it vacate the criminal convictions of trafficked sex workers who are charged with crimes they were forced into by their traffickers. However, it does put into place the other ten facets of the law Polaris claims every anti-trafficking legal framework needs: 
  • adequately defining, criminalizing and penalizing sex trafficking
  • adequately defining, criminalizing and penalizing labor trafficking
  • tapping into the full range of tools for fighting traffickers
  • giving law enforcement agents specialized training to prepare them for anti-trafficking operations
  • allowing the state to seize property of traffickers that has played a role in their operations and sell it, using the money on behalf of trafficking survivors
  • treating minors who survive sex exploitation as survivors rather than criminals
  • lowering the amount of evidence needed to legally prove that a minor is a sex trafficking survivor
  • providing assistance to trafficking survivors – financially, socially, emotionally, professionally and otherwise
  • letting survivors seek civil damages from their former captors
  • establishing a human trafficking task force to help authorities bring slavers to justice

            In less than a year, Massachusetts has gone from being one of the only states with no anti-trafficking laws to having one of the best legal frameworks in the country, a turnaround so profound that last month Polaris Project announced the Bay State the “Most Improved” of all 50 states. Only Washington continues to have more comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation

            Of course, passing legislation is one thing; using it to protect the vulnerable, help those in bondage and care for trafficking survivors is quite another. While the new law has led to a few high-profile successes, such as the March arrest of four suspected trafficking ringleaders in Chelsea and East Boston, relatively few such successes have appeared since the Act went into effect in February. Six months after the passage of the Act, most of the tens of thousands of women thought to be in bondage in the Boston area remain captives. 

            But first steps are just that: first steps. Laws may be dead instruments that only come alive in the hands of those they empower, but if they empower the right people, they may just make a difference to the otherwise powerless. Thanks to the tardy but well-intentioned work of the Massachusetts legislature, women who might otherwise die in bondage or never see justice done to their pimps will watch the state drag their tormentors off to prison. And finally, at long last, many of them will receive the love and care that they deserve from organizations like Amirah. 

            Jack is a sophomore at Gordon College, where he studies English, political science, human nature, and how to make the world a better place. 

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