FRANKFORT — A House bill that would stiffen state penalties for human traffickers and provide more services to trafficking victims took a major step Thursday toward becoming law.
A similar measure stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, but the panel voted 10-1 on Thursday to pass House Bill 3 with some minor tweaks. It now goes to the full Senate.
The measure would add more teeth to Kentucky's 2008 human trafficking law. It would provide more training for law enforcement on human trafficking, allow police and prosecutors to seize assets of those involved in human trafficking, and earmark money from the seized assets to pay for victim services. The bill also allows human trafficking victims to receive treatment rather than jail time, a provision sometimes referred to as safe-harbor protection.
The proposal also would require people to report human trafficking to authorities, an essential provision of the bill, said the bill's sponsors, Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, and Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris.
Since 2008, advocates have treated 101 human trafficking victims, but there have been only 18 prosecutions — 16 using state law and two using federal law. The vast majority of those cases involve the selling of Kentucky children for sex by someone they know.
Backers of the bill said many more victims probably have gone unidentified.
"Because of the lack of training, I don't think these crimes are being adequately identified for what they are," Overly said.
Wuchner said the bill includes a screening tool for police and other first responders to determine whether a person is a victim of human trafficking.
Such training tools have a huge impact, said Gretchen Hunt, training coordinator and staff attorney for the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. Louisville Metro Police Department's narcotics squad is one of the best in the country at uncovering human trafficking because those officers have been trained to know what to look for, Hunt said.
Hunt said an undercover Louisville police officer was offered sex with a 17-year-old girl in exchange for heroin in August 2011. The officer questioned the girl and found that she had been forced to have sex with as many as 15 men in a month in exchange for drugs. The girl was treated as a victim rather than charged with a crime, Hunt said.
One person has pleaded guilty to charges related to human trafficking in that case, and a second person is scheduled to stand trial this month, she said.
Overly said a broad coalition of prosecutors, defense lawyers and advocates have worked to pass HB 3 after a similar bill was defeated last year. That might have made the difference in this year's efforts to get the bill passed, she said.
"Multiple agencies and organizations have come together to really craft a piece of legislation that we think will help address the problem," Overly said.
Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.