Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley wants to get tough on human trafficking, which long has been a problem in the state. To do so, he proposed rules Monday that could make it easier to charge human traffickers with a crime.
The Republican wants to use consumer protection laws to establish penalties for doing things like using a business as a front for trafficking or forcing someone to work for free to pay off a debt. Luring someone to Missouri with the promise of a job could also be prosecuted, he said.
Hawley's office also plans to set up a statewide enforcement unit and a task force to coordinate law enforcement and victim services.
“Sex trafficking is slavery. It is forced, unchosen labor. As it flourishes in our country, it threatens our most fundamental beliefs,” Hawley said. “If it is not checked, it will disfigure our society.”
Missouri is among the top 20 states in the nation in the number of cases of human trafficking reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In 2016, 135 cases were reported in Missouri — almost double the year before. Last week, federal authorities arrested two men in a brothel raid in Columbia, Missouri, and charged them with promoting prostitution online.
Katie Rhoades, a sex trafficking survivor and the founder of the St. Louis-based nonprofit Healing Action, was also at Monday’s news conference. She’ll sit on the task force.
“[Hawley] is using the tools that he has to make change now, and to be able to make change decisively,” she said. “We have heard politicians talk about this issue, there has been task force after task force, and it’s missed the action piece.”
But Rhoades cautioned that there still aren’t enough services for trafficking victims in St. Louis, pointing to the six women who contacted her nonprofit in the last month because they were unable to find housing.
Anti-trafficking advocates said Hawley and his staff had sought their input to develop the initiatives. Copies of the proposed regulations were available to reporters.
Hawley signed documents Monday to begin the process of changing rules, which will include public feedback.
He’ll also need the support of the Missouri General Assembly, which is considering transferring $6 million from a fund used by the attorney general’s office for consumer protection cases to the state’s underfunded public defender system.
“I call on them to reverse this mistake, to fully fund all consumer protection efforts, including our anti-trafficking initiatives,” Hawley said.
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB