By DAVID EGGERT
LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan's top law enforcer said Wednesday that the state should treat teenage prostitutes as victims, not criminals, as it works to combat human trafficking.
The recommendation to create a "safe harbor" provision for minors is among many resulting from a six-month review led by the state's first human trafficking commission.
Attorney General Bill Schuette and lawmakers who worked on the report also want to toughen criminal penalties for traffickers and people who solicit sex from 16- and 17-year-olds.
"What we're doing is putting in place a presumption that if you're a minor and you're forced to have sex, the presumption is that you are a victim, not a criminal," Schuette, a Republican, said during a news conference at his Lansing office attended by legislators, advocates and trafficking experts.
Some legislation already has been introduced and more is expected soon in a state that is thought to be a trafficking hot spot because of its international borders and waterways.
Key recommendations include fixing conflicting provisions in 2006 and 2010 anti-trafficking laws, making human trafficking an offense that state social service workers must report to law enforcement and giving prosecutors more time to freeze suspects' assets, including places used to house victims. The money that's recovered could be used to treat victims' psychological injuries and provide them housing.
The commission, co-chaired by Schuette and House Criminal Justice Chairman Kurt Heise, also suggests allowing trafficking victims to have their prostitution convictions vacated.
"We have a professional responsibility to eradicate human trafficking and we have a moral responsibility for our families and our friends and our sons and daughters to make sure this scourge is run out of Michigan altogether," said Heise, a Republican from Wayne County's Plymouth Township. "This report does not sit on a shelf."
The report concludes there is inadequate data on trafficking in Michigan and that more can be done to better identify victims and help them with housing, life-skills training and medical, legal and translation services. The commission has identified more than 300 victims but believes the problem is underreported.
One goal is to simply raise awareness with the public. The reports' authors suggest a statewide campaign that would include billboard and bus advertisements and passing a law that requires posters in rest areas and welcome centers that give a toll-free national hotline operated by an anti-human trafficking organization.
Bridgette Carr, director of the University of Michigan's Human Trafficking Clinic, said the commission went beyond settling for easy sound bites and dug into the problem to come up with comprehensive solutions. As an example, she said some states have safe harbor laws that shield victims from prostitution charges but still allow them to be held for truancy or other forms of juvenile delinquency.
"This commission spent the time and the effort to find out if we're not going to arrest them, how can we put them in a place that provides victim services? How can we get them into that category of victim and out of that category of criminal?" Carr said.
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