By EMMA FIDEL
LANSING (AP) - Michigan lawmakers are trying to combat human trafficking and improve the state's treatment of victims with a large bill package moving ahead in both chambers.
The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to raise the minimum age for prostitution charges to 18 from 16 years old.
The recommendation to create a "safe harbor" provision for minors was among many resulting from a six-month review last year by the state's human trafficking commission. A partner bill that passed the Senate last month requires courts to refer minor victims to the Michigan Department of Human Services for care.
Safe harbor legislation is the "critical first step" needed to bring about meaningful change in how the state deals with human trafficking, according to Bridgette Carr, director of the human trafficking clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
"If we can't get it right about kids who are being sold for sex, I don't have a lot of hope that we can get it right for the rest of the victims of human trafficking," said Carr, a member of the state commission.
The Senate also voted Wednesday to expand the definition of racketeering to include girls under the age of 18. It's currently a felony to entice a girl under 16 away from her guardian for prostitution, sex or marriage.
Foster care agencies would consider whether a child could be a trafficking victim under another bill that passed. The agency would be required to make mental health or counseling services available if the child was thought to be a victim. A fourth bill would create related training standards for health care professionals.
The bills, which now go to the House, are part of package of more than 20 human trafficking bills introduced in the Senate and House last year. Many of those bills have already passed one chamber, including a Senate bill allowing victims to sue their traffickers for damages and a House bill increasing maximum penalties for people who solicit sex from 16- and 17-year-olds to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"As we work toward enacting policy that will reduce the prevalence of human trafficking in Michigan, it is critical for us to remain focused on a victim-centered approach that will increase our chances of protecting children and adults from these horrific offenses," bill sponsor Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said in a statement Wednesday.
Attorney General Bill Schuette and lawmakers who worked on the November report also want to increase awareness in Michigan of human trafficking as a local and global issue. The commission identified more than 300 human trafficking victims in the state but believes the problem is underreported and available data are inadequate.
The report said Michigan is thought to be a trafficking hot spot because of its international borders and waterways.
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