LOS ANGELES (AP) — With tougher laws on the books to punish human traffickers and more awareness about those forced into sexual slavery, prosecutors, lawmakers and police met Friday to plot a plan to eradicate human sex trafficking in California and across the nation.
The symposium was hosted by the YWCA Greater Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and billed as a groundbreaking gathering to examine the challenges of combatting domestic human sex trafficking and discuss best practices statewide with officials from Los Angeles, San Diego and Alameda counties.
"When we think about what should be done, our response understandably is we want to protect that child, hug her," said California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who as a prosecutor once specialized in child sexual assault cases. "But to really do justice, to make justice a reality, it's not just about hugging the victims. It's about prosecuting the offender."
According to a 2005 International Labour Organisation paper, human trafficking - or sexual servitude and forced labor - brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The majority of that money, or nearly $28 billion, comes from forced commercial sexual exploitation. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society.
"It really is anybody's daughter," said Stephany Powell, a retired 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and executive director of the nonprofit Mary Magdalene Project which helps victims of trafficking. "That middle class girl is even more vulnerable because she's not hip to the gangs. She really believes it when the guy comes up with a business card says 'I'm gonna make you a model, I'm gonna get you into a video' ... Next thing you know, she's in the game."
California is one of the nation's top four destinations for trafficking human beings, according to the state attorney general's office. In 2012, Harris convened a working group on human trafficking which issued a report finding that local and transnational gangs were increasingly trafficking humans because it's low risk and highly profitable.
"We see a decrease in gang crime across the region not because they're going straight," Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said. They're getting into more identity fraud, sex trafficking and other crimes below the radar, he said.
McDonnell added: "The girls are used until they're no longer usable, and we'll see cases, if there's a market, where they'll try to ransom them back to the family."
The state report also found that 72 percent of human-trafficking victims are Americans and not foreigners as many in the public believe. Moreover, the problem is often under-reported, especially because victims can be difficult to identify or sometimes mistaken as perpetrators, the report concluded. Compounding the problem, the growth of information technology has made it easier for sex traffickers to reach victims and customers online.
Lynn Overmann, a senior adviser from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the office is working on a tool to identify traffickers by pulling phone numbers, phrases and other details form trafficking ads. The open-source software is free and being tested by a few law enforcement agencies, including one in Texas that found 466 of 600 phone numbers pulled from ads pinged against databases for a variety of criminal activities.
"They are criminals in the deepest sense of the word," Overmann said. "They're not just exploiting women. They're creating all types of other crimes."
In Los Angeles, the district attorney's office has launched a program to identify and help children who have been sex trafficked rather than arresting them. Harris said the state needs to do more to create safe houses for victims around counties.
Multiple state bills have been proposed to toughen trafficking laws, including efforts to add human trafficking to a list of gang-related activities, allowing the use of wiretaps during investigation of such cases and giving longer prison time for those who buy sex.
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