10/16/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

How States Can Help End Trafficking

The idea of trafficking in humans calls up images of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th century, of immigrants lured into forced labor and prostitution during the great wave of immigration and the early twentieth century and of mobsters violating the Mann Act, which forbids taking persons across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

Sadly, trafficking in human beings is not yesterday's news. Worldwide, it is estimated that more persons are held as slaves today than at the peak of the slave trade. In the US, efforts to address trafficking have intensified in the last two decades. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking in persons. It defines sex trafficking as the "recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act," if the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or if the person induced to perform such an act is less than 18 years old. Sex and labor trafficking are often intertwined. Men, women and children brought to the US for slave labor are frequently sexually exploited and assaulted along their journey.

Spurred by the 2000 law and by advocacy groups, federal government departments have collaborated to develop strategies to end trafficking and aid its victims. The State Department has worked to end trafficking internationally and promote aid to its victims and punishment for its perpetrators. Since President Obama issued the groundbreaking executive order, "Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts," his administration has implemented new rules to enforce it.

Still much remains to be done to combat trafficking, particularly on the state level. Trafficking has been documented in every state, and a few state and local governments have completely overhauled how trafficking is prosecuted and how women forced to engage in sex for money by pimps or abductors are treated by the criminal justice and social service systems. But anti-trafficking programs and legal reforms must be accelerated. States are on the front line of the struggle against trafficking, and three pieces of legislation that states could enact would help immensely.

A "safe harbor" law would require minor children who engage in prostitution at the behest of an adult to be treated as victims, not criminals. When such children are granted immunity from prosecution, threatening victims with prosecution should they contact police -- an important tool used by traffickers -- is no longer useful. States should treat those under 18 as victims of abuse and neglect, and provide them the services they need. Such social services should address the unique circumstances of each case and not stigmatize those trapped by trafficking.

Another reform of state law would help those who have been trafficked, but who as adults were held legally responsible for their crimes. Often trafficking survivors have multiple arrests for prostitution before their trafficking status becomes apparent. With a criminal record, it is often hard for survivors to move forward with their lives -- their past may be behind them, but their record follows them wherever they go. Those convicted of nonviolent offenses while trafficked should be able to appeal to have their convictions vacated so that they can make a new life -- obtain legitimate employment, pursue education, retain immigrant visas and seek loans to finance cars, education and the like. Fourteen states now have such laws. As a New York judge observed in one case, "Victims of sex trafficking ... are blocked from decent jobs and other prospects of rebuilding their lives. Even after they escape from sex trafficking, the criminal record victimizes them for life."

A third change in state laws is a simple one: requiring certain business establishments to post the hotline maintained by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (1-888-373-7888). The hotline is a significant resource connecting callers to law enforcement, social services and information about the crime of human trafficking. Operated by a nonprofit organization and funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, it is toll-free, staffed 24/7, confidential and anonymous. It can assist victims of trafficking as well as those calling with tips for law enforcement. Twenty-two states have passed such legislation. Examples of where posting hotline information should be mandatory include massage parlors, spas or any similar establishment; sexually oriented businesses; anywhere with a liquor license; transportation hubs such as airports, bus stations and truck stops; hospitals; and large farms employing migrant labor, as well schools and job centers.

States can and should step up. Ending the scourge of trafficking requires not just the federal government, but a strong state response to those who traffic in humans and the survivors. Trafficking victims are often invisible and uniquely silenced. For those who wonder what they can do help, working to pass such laws is key to helping trafficking survivors find the help they need and the justice they deserve.