A new report says 41 states have failed to adopt strong penalties against human trafficking, and advocates say a patchwork of differing state laws makes it difficult for authorities to target the crime.
In Connecticut, for instance, the strict penalties for sex traffickers are among the toughest in the nation. Neighboring Massachusetts, meanwhile, had no statute specifically targeting sex trafficking until one was signed into law days ago.
The report released Thursday by the advocacy group Shared Hope International said more than a dozen states have passed new crackdowns, but four states — Maine, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming — have yet to impose any specific restrictions on the crime.
"Each state's laws show omissions in protective provisions for child victims and (they) lack strong laws to prosecute the men who rent the bodies of other men's children," said Linda Smith, the group's founder and president.
As many as 15,000 victims of human trafficking are brought into the U.S. each year, according to advocacy groups. They say there could be more than 100,000 victims in the country now.
Victims are sometimes smuggled in from outside the U.S., but many started out as young runaways or simply needed money. Human traffickers target men, women and children for forced labor or services, while sex traffickers make their victims work in the sex trade. The crimes range from smuggling immigrants into the U.S. to work in restaurants or homes to forcing young women to work as prostitutes.
Holly Austin Smith said a man at a mall promised her a job after she ran away from home at age 14. She said she was swiftly brought to a motel in New Jersey where two adults gave her a dress, put makeup on her face and dyed her hair.
"Within hours I was on the streets of Atlantic City having men forced on me," said Smith, now 33 and an advocate of stricter sex trafficking laws.
Federal authorities can prosecute traffickers under the Trafficking Victims Protections Act, enacted in 2000, which carries stiff penalties. The law also created a new visa allowing victims of the crime to become temporary U.S. residents. But prosecutors have limited resources and often have to rely on the states to crack down on the crime.
Some states have taken aggressive steps to strengthen their laws, the report said. Fifteen states now allow victims to seek civil damages from their traffickers in court. Four states — Illinois, Maryland, Nevada and New York — have laws that vacate convictions for sex trafficking victims.
Other states were criticized in the report for failing to pass strict laws. The report also found that 10 states have yet to adopt sex trafficking laws and that 19 don't make it a crime to buy sex acts with a minor. It also found that Iowa, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Wyoming have no laws making it a crime to use the Internet to purchase or sell sex acts with a minor.
Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna, president of the National Association of Attorneys General, said policymakers have to play catch-up to establish consistent policies to rein in the crime.
"Having a strong, fairly uniform set of laws across the country is very important, because traffickers are mobile, their victims are mobile and we don't want traffickers to be moving their victims even more trying to evade stronger state laws, by moving to states with weaker laws," he said.
The state definitions of illegal trafficking that vary from federal standards can also make it more difficult to get additional protections and services from the U.S. government, said Kirsten Widner of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University's School of Law.
"And if they have no definition at all, that could be a real problem," said Widner.
One high-profile battleground was Massachusetts, which for years faced pressure from advocates to enact anti-trafficking laws. In November, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill that would impose a life sentence on anyone found guilty of trafficking children for sex or forced labor. It also allows prosecutors to look at first-time offenders under 18 as victims rather than criminals.
"We have focused on the very people who have been victimized the most," said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who pushed for the bill. "What the bill does is change the lens around on that. That's why implementing this is going to be difficult. I think we can do it. It's a real change in the way we've approached it."
Some advocates, though, say more aggressive enforcement of the laws, instead of strict new ones, may help crack down on the crime. State authorities need to implement the laws on the books, better coordinate with federal prosecutors and spend more resources trying to identify victims, said Mary Ellison, a director of policy for the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group.
"Traffickers make their money on the backs of the most vulnerable and there's not as much of a risk because laws aren't implemented as strongly as they want," she said. "Until they see these laws implemented, they're not going to be deterred because they're making tons and tons of money exploiting and enslaving people."
Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Manuel Valdes in Seattle, Wash. and Steve Helber in Midlothian, Va., contributed to this report.