Anti-trafficking bill becomes Massachusetts law

BOSTON -- After a six-year fight by the Catholic Church in the commonwealth and her allies supporting the new law making the trafficking of humans for sex and forced labor a crime in Massachusetts, it was passed by Governor Deval Patrick on Nov. 21.

"The Governor, along with the entire state legislature, deserves accolades for their united effort to codify anti-trafficking legislation with the goal of eradicating the commercial exploitation of human beings," executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference James F. Driscoll said.

Senator Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), original author of the bill, and his office stood in solidarity with the Church and other supporters on this issue throughout the fight. He wrote the bill after staff member Jason M. Whittet brought the trafficking issue to Montigny. Whittet, a project director at the time, had read a 2004 New York Times article on this kind of slavery and brought the issue to the senator's attention.

"This is the most important piece of legislation I have passed since joining the senate," said Senator Montigny.

"I filed the original bill six years ago. During this time I have continually fought for a bill that would protect victims and survivors of this horrific crime," he added.

While he admits it has been difficult to wait for the bill "at least we can say to those who have been wronged that a great bill has finally been passed, which is going to make a difference."

According to information provided by Montigny's staff, the U.S. Department of State considers 200,000 children at high risk for trafficking into the sex industry each year. Traffickers move an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people across international borders annually, over 70 percent women and girls, 50 percent of them minors.

Montigny, Senate chair of the conference committee that reconciled differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, praised the final draft, counting it amongst the strongest in the country.

The bill as passed adds human trafficking crimes to the criminal statute and provides services to trafficking victims in Massachusetts.

"Strengthening state law is one important step in a larger mission," Driscoll said.

The teachings and traditions of the Church demand that we "make every effort possible to eradicate the scourge of human trafficking from our communities," he said.

Much of the language in the final version adds human-trafficking to sex offense laws.

"We cannot repair the spirits that have been broken, but we can provide services for those victims that need help recovering, and prosecute the traffickers to the fullest extent of the law," said Senator Montigny.

"I thank the Committee Conferees, Senate President and Attorney General for helping all of us make this day a reality," he added.

The bill establishes criminal penalties for sex trafficking and forced labor. The senate also promoted the inclusion of organ trafficking, minimum mandatory sentences for first and second offenses of trafficking, and crimes against minors, which the bill defines as any person under age 18.

Section 31 of the bill lays the framework for an Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force made up of state officials, members of law enforcement, victim service organizations, and trafficking survivors. The task force, implemented through the new law, investigates and studies rates of human trafficking, prevention, treatment of victims, and evaluates other necessary programs or services that might protect victims or potential victims of human trafficking.

"Continued effort is needed to increase awareness of this tragic epidemic, decrease demand, enhance the protection of vulnerable populations and expand efforts to restore the lives of victims," according to Driscoll.

The task force will also fund a Victims of Human Trafficking Trust Fund, with revenue from fines and asset forfeitures, to fund services for victims of human trafficking. Courts can now provide money seized by law enforcement as restitution for victims.

The legislation protects minors through "safe harbor provisions," included as part of the bill that allows the commonwealth, defendant or court to request a hearing to determine whether a child arrested for prostitution should receive services through a proceeding.

Driscoll reiterated the commitment of the Catholic community to stand fast with lawmakers on this issue.

"The Massachusetts Catholic Conference looks forward to working with leaders throughout the commonwealth to develop additional policies that protect vulnerable members of our communities and find ways to heal victims. This new law is certainly a major step forward in that direction."