Most Americans and Alaskans think that human trafficking is a problem that happens in other, far-away places. And many are shocked to realize that it’s happening right here, in America and in our state, and that the problem is actually increasing, dramatically.
A very disturbing study last year found that one in four girls and one in five boys, who were receiving services from Covenant House Alaska, reported being victims of sex trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a whopping 846 percent increase from 2010 to 2015 of children who were being trafficked—an increase that the organization attributes to the internet.
Make no mistake: the internet has helped advance the world in so many ways. But, as sex trafficking has moved from the street corner to the smart phone, it is also being used by people with evil intentions to wreak havoc and ruin lives and lure our children into this kind of hell.
There are great people throughout our state and country working tirelessly on the frontlines of this battle. And I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of these people and the organizations they work for. I have heard from these front-line heroes how it can be a discouraging, and often heartbreaking job. But I am always deeply impressed with their dedication and commitment to give all they can to protect our most vulnerable, particularly our children.
It’s important to recognize that in the past three years, Congress has also been very focused on the issue of human trafficking. Working diligently across party lines, we’ve been working hard to get our front-line heroes more tools to stamp out this scourge.
In 2015 we were able to pass and get signed into law the Justice for Victims of Tracking Act, in addition to several other bills that have passed the Senate and have been signed into law.
And just this past week, by a vote of 97-2, we passed, and the president is expected to sign, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which gives those working on the frontlines more tools to keep our children from being ensnared into sex trafficking on the internet and more resources so that prosecutors can put more bad guys in jail.
Specifically, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which I was honored to co-sponsor, will ensure that websites and other institutions that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking can be held legally accountable for their actions. Believe it or not, companies, like Backpage.com, have been using a legal loophole to facilitate online trafficking of our children, free from prosecution. Throughout the past year we’ve been debating the best way to close this loophole in the Commerce Committee, of which I am a member.
Throughout the process—including in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—we heard heartbreaking testimony from mothers whose daughters were lured and into this heinous world and ultimately lost to it. Throughout the country, survivors began to tell their own stories. And yet, disturbingly, many big tech companies testified against our bill.
But at the end of the day, we were able to pass this bill to protect our kids.
The proliferation of human trafficking also demands more resources. The bill that we passed this week also provides more investigators, and more prosecutors to fight these crimes. A new trend to creatively get those resources to the places that need them the most is to give state attorneys general, and front-line prosecutors—who are often closer to the people and have a better understanding of what’s going on in their communities and on their streets—the power to prosecute federal crimes in the area of sex trafficking.
This constructive idea was born from a bad experience in Alaska. When I was the state’s attorney general, there was a high-profile case that my department petitioned the federal government to prosecute under the Mann Act—the federal law that makes it a criminal offense to transport someone across state lines for the purpose of prostitution and human trafficking. My prosecutors had the evidence to put a well-known perpetrator of sex trafficking in jail for violating the federal Mann Act.
But when we petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to allow us to prosecute the case, the federal government rejected our request.
In that case, justice for a young girl was denied, but I vowed to do all I could do to keep that from happening again.
So I worked to incorporate a provision that I authored called the Mann Act Cooperation Act into the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, which was signed into law.
The Mann Act Cooperation Act essentially says that if a state attorney general has the evidence to bring a Mann Act violation, the attorney general of the United States shall allow the state to prosecute the case. (State prosecutors don’t typically have the legal authority to prosecute federal crimes).
We now have stronger tools and more resources to go after sex traffickers under the Mann Act. And the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which we passed this week, gives even more power to local and state prosecutors. Now, we will have thousands of more boots on the ground who can go after the criminals who lure our children into these horrendous worlds.
So to all the bad guys out there who do these things to our children and young adults: You should know that because of the recent changes in the law, thousands of state and federal prosecutors are now empowered to go after you.
And to the good men and women who are working so hard on the frontlines to keep our young Alaskans safe from these bad guys: Thanks for all you do. We’ve got your back.
Dan Sullivan represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.