CASE STUDY: In 2009, The Advocates for Human Rights worked with the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force to strengthen Minnesota’s human trafficking law. The coalition initially set out to improve the state’s response in several ways including strengthening the criminal penalties, providing services and assistance to trafficking victims, training those responsible for responding to trafficking cases, and raising public awareness about human trafficking. However, as the coalition engaged with legislators and allies, the group decided to focus on only one aspect of improving the state’s response in 2009 and to wait to move forward the remaining aspects until future legislative sessions.
In 2007, The Advocates for Human Rights was selected by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Justice Programs to conduct a human sex trafficking needs assessment for the state. The assessment, requested by the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, was undertaken using the human rights documentation and fact-finding techniques The Advocates developed in its international work and was adapted in its local work to analyze the services available to and the barriers faced by trafficked persons when seeking safety and support.
The report Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota, published in September 2008, examines the government response to this issue at the local, state, tribal and federal levels; identifies facilities and services currently available to trafficking victims in Minnesota; assesses their effectiveness; and makes recommendations for coordinating services to better meet the needs of sex trafficking victims statewide. One of the key findings of the report was that “at the state level, sex traffickers and pimps receive sentences that are disproportionately low compared to other felony crimes and which cannot be enhanced based on prior convictions.” As a result, The Advocates recommended that the Minnesota Legislature “should amend state law to ensure that sentences for sex trafficking are proportionate to other felony offenses for crimes against persons. The law should also be amended to allow for sentence enhancements.”
As a follow-up to these recommendations, The Advocates worked with the statewide Minnesota Trafficking Task Force to draft bills to strengthen the criminal penalties, provide services and assistance to trafficking victims, ensure trafficking victims access to state public benefits, and create training and public awareness programs, which were introduced as a comprehensive legislative package. Prior to the introduction of the bills, The Advocates discussed the legislative climate, fiscal crisis, priorities, and compromises within the coalition of supporters as well as with the legislators authoring the bills. Given all of the factors, the coalition decided to make passing the enhanced criminal penalties the priority but to seek public hearings on all of the bills. The rationale for this approach was to raise awareness among legislators about the importance of a comprehensive approach to addressing human trafficking with measures to enhance prosecution, promote protection of trafficking victims, and prevent further human trafficking through public awareness. But, the group knew that the budget deficit would also be a factor on the minds of legislators and decided to temporarily set aside the bills related to providing services and assistance to trafficking victims, ensuring trafficking victims access to state public benefits, and creating training and public awareness programs. The group involved and consulted law enforcement, prosecutors, and services providers in the drafting process to ensure that the bills addressed their issues and concerns. The group also sought the assistance of attorneys within the Minnesota Legislature with expertise in drafting laws.
Once the bills were introduced, the coalition attended and testified at eight legislative hearings before various committees of the Minnesota House of Representatives and Minnesota Senate. Talking points and handouts were prepared for legislators and others interested in the proposed legislation, which included the need for the legislation and the proposed solutions. The Advocates coordinated the testimony and confirmed the participation of several key testifiers in advance of the hearings. Together, the testifiers and The Advocates prepared for possible objections to the bills and practiced responding to these objections. The Advocates also prepared sample language for the public to use in asking their elected officials to support the proposed legislation and sent this information to its constituents and members of the coalition for public dissemination. After each hearing, The Advocates updated the coalition and constituents about the results and next steps. The Minnesota Legislature unanimously passed and the governor signed the bill providing enhanced criminal penalties into law on May 21, 2009.
The criminal amendments took effect on August 1, 2009 and will enable law enforcement and prosecutors to better hold the perpetrators of this grave human rights violation accountable. Specifically, the amendments to the law:
In the process of passing the amendments, The Advocates learned that for the new criminal penalties to take effect, changes were also needed in the corresponding sentencing guidelines. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission was responsible for making a recommendation for the placement of the newly amended criminal statute in the sentencing guidelines. The coalition attended and provided written and oral testimony to the commission over the course of several meetings beginning in July 2009 and ending in December 2009. The commission delivered its final recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature in January 2010. The Minnesota Legislature held a hearing in February 2010 to review the commission’s recommendations.
The process of documenting the gaps in the government response to sex trafficking in Minnesota began in 2007, two years after the initial passage of the state human trafficking law. The passage of the strengthened criminal law represents one step in the process of improving the response to human trafficking in Minnesota. Additional improvements particularly in the area of funding for victim services, training and public awareness are still needed. Despite these remaining gaps, Minnesota’s state human trafficking law is regarded as one of the ten best in the United States by the Polaris Project. (See: Polaris Project, Top Ten Best and Ten Worst State Human Trafficking Laws, 2009)