Fighting human trafficking in Howard County [Editorial]

Howard County Times

"Human trafficking is a threat to the human race, our economic, social, and moral values and we need to employ effective strategies to tackle this type of violence."

The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking stated the obvious in that single sentence at the conclusion of its first report, published last October.

So what about those "effective strategies?"

Judging from the piecemeal approach to this "threat to the human race," at federal, state and county levels, the strategies have been middlingly effective, at best.

Even Howard County, among the leaders in the state and region when it set up an anti-trafficking task force in 2014, has seemingly lost some momentum in the fight.

Advocates for victims in the county point to a lack of coordination and communication and public-relations campaigns have fallen into the background. Resources are lean, even with the recent addition of another police detective to investigate cases. The director of one county program that helps victims said police are "busy all day every day. They could use 10 more people and they'd still be busy."

Only about a quarter of 50 trafficking-related cases heard in the county's Circuit Court in the last seven years have resulted in meaningful convictions and Maryland's laws on the crime are among the nation's weakest, according to advocates for victims. Most of the cases involve prostitution-related offenses, and trafficking has remained a global, black market modern day sex slave trade.

Cases against traffickers are frustratingly complex to prove, according to prosecutors who must rely on the testimony of victims who have already been exploited and abused and whose credibility is certain to be questioned by defense attorneys.

Programs to identify and help the victims are often disjointed, involving the police, prosecutors, courts, counselors and social welfare organizations.

The county executive wants money for a full-time human trafficking prevention manager who, presumably, could begin to bridge gaps in services.

Fighting trafficking will require a sustained commitment on several fronts. In addition to better communication, coordination of services and public-awareness campaigns, Maryland needs updated laws and tougher penalties so police and prosecutors can build better cases for felony, rather than misdemeanor, convictions.

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