Human trafficking, which includes harboring and transporting forced labor, is the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise, and Snohomish County and Western Washington are not immune. The Washington Task Force against Trafficking of Persons reports that trafficking has been found in 18 Washington counties, with victims ranging from sex workers, to children, to "mail order" brides.
In Pierce County Superior Court last November, two men were charged with human trafficking and multiple counts of promoting the sexual exploitation of a minor. As The Herald's Diana Hefley reported, the charges represented a unified prosecution in three counties, including Snohomish County. "It is rare for these young people to be working in the sex trade on their own," Hefley writes. "The Internet has made it easier for these pimps to conduct business without being detected by police officers patrolling the streets. Customers go online to find prostitutes, and many of the encounters happen in motel rooms rented by the pimps."
A lot of work has been done, including local efforts by the Sexual Exploitation and Intervention Network of Snohomish County to integrate services. In 2011, a 24-hour Snohomish County Human Trafficking Hotline was established that links the Everett Police Department, the sheriff's office and the FBI with intervention centers to help victims. (The hotline number is 425-258-9037.) The county prosecutor and sheriff's office also received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat juvenile sex trafficking. The grant helps pay for a sheriff's detective and a deputy prosecutor, Matt Baldock.
Olympia lawmakers, in concert with activists and local prosecutors, are also working to daylight the crisis and enact legislation that will help victims, hold traffickers accountable, and ideally reduce demand. The hats-off leader is state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle. The bills include SB 5308, which creates a statewide coordinating committee to address the question of children who are commercially sexually exploited; SB 5488, which tackles the cyberspace side, adding $5,000 per offense for using an Internet ad to facilitate the commission of a sex-trafficking crime; SB 5563, to help teachers, administrators and educational staff recognize signs of commercial sexual abuse of children, and; SB 5669, to boost penalties for adults who attempt to recruit minors for sex trafficking (read: putting more heat on pimps.)
All of these bills merit the strong support of Snohomish County legislators. A comprehensive strategy -- along with a willingness to discuss the challenge openly -- will curtail the menace of human trafficking.
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