Herald-Leader Editorial

Modern-day slavery in Ky.; pass bill to fight it, aid victims

Pass bill to fight it, aid victims

January 9, 2013 

Last year, in a particularly distressing failure of Kentucky politics, a bill to strengthen Kentucky's human trafficking laws stalled and died in the Senate after clearing the House 99-0, apparently in a fit of vindictiveness over unrelated negotiations on the road budget.

Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, was both sponsor of the bill and the House's lead negotiator on divvying up the road money.

Overly — who became the first woman ever elected to leadership in the Kentucky House of Representatives yesterday when she beat out Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, as chairwoman of the Democratic caucus — says she's planning to introduce a similar bill in this session.

Both houses of the General Assembly should act quickly to strengthen the state's ability to find and punish people who trade in other humans, and protect their victims.

Human trafficking is often called modern slavery, and indeed it is slavery — using force, fraud or coercion to make people work for no or virtually no pay. While some cases involve forced labor, particularly domestic labor, it is often used to force women into prostitution.

The women are particularly vulnerable, some are minors, some in this country illegally and so afraid to go to authorities. In addition, prostitution is a crime and even women who are forced into prostitution are often treated as criminals, another reason they'd avoid going to the police.

This isn't something that's rare or a relic of the past.

In October, a woman in Bowling Green was charged with taking cash in exchange for allowing two men to have sex with a 13-year-old family member. In July, a woman in Louisville pled guilty to a similar transaction in which she tried to barter a 17-year-old girl in exchange for heroin.

In late 2011, the FBI and Lexington police busted a brothel at a Lexington apartment where up to 10 men would be waiting to have sex with Hispanic women. It was part of a ring that moved women from city to city across several states to work as prostitutes. One woman, who testified for the prosecution, said she was working as a maid and only agreed to work as a prostitute after the group's leaders threatened her family in Mexico.

Human trafficking was defined as a crime by the state legislature in 2007. Since then there have been 16 cases brought under the law, but law enforcement officials and victims' advocates say that represents a small fraction of the actual instances of forced labor or sex in Kentucky.

The bill Overly proposed last year included more training on human trafficking for law enforcement officials. It also, critically, allowed prosecutors to go after the assets of people involved in this slavery and to use some of the proceeds to fund services for the victims.

This goes to the heart of the matter. People sell humans to make money, always have. Taking those very ill-gotten gains away and using them to help victims holds out more hope of reducing the trade than locking up women who have been forced into prostitution.

It's a disgrace there is slavery in 21st century America. It's doubly disgraceful that political haggling over road funds stood in the way of legislation that would arm law enforcement officers with the tools they need to combat it in this state.

Overly struck a blow for women in Kentucky yesterday by capturing a leadership position. Hopefully she'll have similar success in pushing this important legislation this session.

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