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A clean slate

Md. law promises fresh start for victims of sex trafficking

The unfortunate young girls and women who are forced to work as prostitutes by sex traffickers and criminal gangs are doubly victimized when, as inevitably happens, they end up in court. They have been cruelly exploited by the pimps and panderers who first lured them into the trade, then ruthlessly confiscated their earnings. Society penalizes the women a second time when, in addition to putting them in jail, it stamps them with a criminal record that follows them for the rest of their lives.

A criminal conviction for prostitution makes it difficult, if not impossible, for sex trafficking victims to restart their lives afresh. All but the most menial jobs tend to be closed to them, as are many schools, colleges and universities. Meanwhile the heavy stigma of prostitution makes these women social pariahs in their own communities. Too often the result is that despite their best efforts, such women remain trapped in the very circumstances they were trying to escape when they mistakenly or unwillingly entrusted their futures to criminals who viewed them not as fellow human beings but as prey.

City Councilman James Kraft is proposing new regulations on hotels to crack down on the crime, including a prohibition on renting rooms for less than half a day and mandatory training for staff on the signs of human trafficking. Both are important steps, and they build on a 2011 reform passed by the General Assembly that allows trafficking victims to have their prostitution convictions vacated if they could show they were lured into the trade through force, fraud or coercion. The law has given some victims an unexpected second chance to make a decent life for themselves, but it must be supported by greater access to the kinds of legal and social services that would allow more girls and young women victimized by traffickers to take advantage of it.

The changes in how the state treats trafficked women and girls embodied in Maryland's 2011 law reflect a sea change in public attitudes toward victims of sexual assault as well as a growing recognition on the part of police and prosecutors of the changing nature of the criminal organizations involved in trafficking.

As recently as a decade ago, human trafficking was barely on the radar screens of local prosecutors and police departments who for the most part viewed prostitution as an age-old profession that women entered voluntarily. Today we are more likely to see trafficking victims in the context of the larger problem of sexual violence against women in all areas of American life, from college campuses to businesses and the military. Though prostitution still carries an enormous social stigma, society is coming around to the fact that many of the women who engage in it do so against their will out of fear of beatings, disfigurement or worse at the hands of their tormentors.

At the same time, criminal gangs that used to make enormous profits in the drug trade increasingly are turning to prostitution as a lucrative new business model. The shift is partly a result of government successes in prosecuting drug dealers and sending them away for long prison terms, and partly because unlike a fixed commodity such as narcotics, the supply of vulnerable young girls and women is virtually unlimited.

Streetwalkers and hotel-based prostitutes who are forced to have sex with as many as 15 or 20 customers a day can earn up to a quarter million dollars a year for their pimp or gang leader, virtually none of which the girl or woman ever sees. Meanwhile, the men who profit from the trade know that state and local laws against trafficking are seldom enforced and are so weak that even if they are caught they are unlikely to face serious consequences.

Steps like those Mr. Kraft is pursuing to prevent trafficking are crucial, but so are expanded efforts to address the true perpetrators of the crime. Maryland has gradually toughened the penalties for pimps and gang members who traffic girls and women for the purpose of prostitution, though it still has a long way to go before it can be said that the law holds them fully accountable. But just as important is protecting those victimized by traffickers, and for that Maryland needs a more robust infrastructure of social workers and lawyers willing to work on vacating their convictions.

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