by Mary O’Brien

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe portions of what I believe was the first sex trafficking case to go to trial in Hennepin County. Although the law has been in existence for some time, this case was the first time members of the general public–the jury–were asked to recognize sex trafficking as a crime and find the perpetrator culpable for this human rights violation.

Sex trafficking and prostitution are part of the same continuum of criminal activity– that is, the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Sex trafficking is a grave human rights violation and a violent crime that has devastating consequences for its victims.

Legal definitions of sex trafficking vary, but international, federal and state law all reflect the idea that sex trafficking involves individuals profiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of others. Under Minnesota law, sex trafficking does not require transportation across any border; it can involve United States citizens; and, unlike federal law, it does not require proof that the adult victim was lured into trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion. Under Minnesota law, a victim may be trafficked “by any means.”  This means that in Minnesota sex trafficking is essentially prostitution that is controlled by a pimp or trafficker.

The Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights has been working to combat this human rights violation in Minnesota for years. In 2008 we published the Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota which examined the government response to sex trafficking at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels. The report also identified facilities and services available to trafficking victims in Minnesota and assessed their effectiveness. Finally, the report made recommendations for coordinating services to better meet the needs of sex trafficking victims statewide.

Since the publication of the report, we have reached more than 2,000 individuals through more than 60 presentations and trainings throughout the state, including the first-ever prosecutor training. This week, Staff Attorney Beatríz Menanteau will be training hotel employees about sex trafficking and how they can help identify victims. Additionally, we’ve worked with the legislative committee of the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force. In 2009 we drafted amendments to the state law that increased penalties for traffickers and “johns.” Those amendments were signed into law and were the basis for some of the charges in the trial that I witnessed.

Most recently, we have been leading the Safe Harbor Initiative to change Minnesota law and clarify the state’s obligation to provide services and assistance to children who are sexually exploited, rather than to prosecute them criminally when they are purchased for sexual services. The Safe Harbor legislation was signed into law in July 2011 and will be fully implemented by 2014.

The Advocates, with our partners and the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, continues to work to improve our law, government response to sex trafficking, and community awareness of sex trafficking in Minnesota. As a result of this work, Minnesota is a national leader among the states in combating sex trafficking. Polaris Project, a national organization, just released its Annual State Ratings that evaluate the laws and steps taken by each state to combat human trafficking.  Minnesota has been among the top ranking states for several years and was one of the first states to pass Safe Harbor legislation. Minnesota has, and continues to be, a leader on this issue.

Why does this one case matter?

This case is an important milestone in recognizing sex trafficking as a violation of human rights in Minnesota. While we have had many charges and convictions under the law, and we have a strong task force with committed advocates and legal professionals; a jury trial is a litmus test for how our community regards sex trafficking.  Does the general public recognize sex trafficking, as defined under our law, as a crime, and are they ready to prioritize victim safety and hold the perpetrators accountable?

I am happy to report that the jury found the defendant guilty on all charges — including two counts of sex trafficking and evidence of bodily harm to the victim. On August 20, 2012, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

And while this one case does not mark the end of sex trafficking in Minnesota — we still have a long way to go –- this jury sent a strong message to me and all of Minnesota that we are ready. We are ready to change our perception of prostituted women; we are ready to hold the perpetrators accountable; and we are ready to recognize this grave human rights violation.

For more information about sex trafficking, please visit www.stopvaw.org

Mary O’Brien is a Program Associate with the Women’s Human Rights Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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