LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas moved a step closer Friday to toughing its laws protecting human trafficking victims, less than a year after a national advocacy group scolded the state for having some of the nation's poorest laws for those types of crimes.
The House voted 91-0 to approve a bill, which the governor has pledged to sign, that would offer new protections to victims, such as allowing them to sue their abductor. It also would create new penalties for anyone who knowingly patronizes a prostitute who is a human trafficking victim, as well as allow the attorney general to create a task force to suggest other ways to address human trafficking.
The Senate passed an identical bill earlier this week, and Gov. Mike Beebe's spokesman said the governor plans to sign it. The bill defines human trafficking as harboring or transporting a person with the intent to subject them to involuntary servitude and sexual exploitation.
"The fact is that it's a problem in Arkansas," said Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, who sponsored the bill. "It's a hidden crime that's very hard to see."
Meeks said Arkansas needs to do expand its laws even though trafficking cases often involve federal jurisdiction. That was the case in November, when a New Jersey man was convicted of running a nationwide sex trafficking and prostitution ring out of Little Rock. Federal prosecutors said the man, who was tried in Iowa, lured troubled young women to join under promises of help and long-lasting relationships that soon evaporated.
"Human trafficking does often have an interstate component, so that would fall under federal law," Meeks said. "But in Arkansas, you had prosecutors who didn't know that human trafficking existed or knew about it but you saw them using other statutes because the penalty on it was not tough enough."
Arkansas has had a human trafficking law on the books since 2005, but no one has ever been arrested or convicted under the statute, said Ralph Ward with the state's Crime Information Center.
The Polaris Project, a national group working against human trafficking, last year dubbed Arkansas one of the "faltering four" states in terms of legislation to protect victims of such crimes. Arkansas joined Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota in the lowest tier of the group's rankings.
Since 2007, the Polaris Project has received 246 calls from Arkansas to its national human trafficking hotline. Sixty of those calls were emergency situations or yielded an actual tip about an incident of human trafficking, the group said.
"We are pleased that Arkansas' legislators are making significant efforts to strengthen the state's laws against human trafficking," Polaris spokeswoman Megan Fowler said Friday. "These are the types of actions we want to see all states take to protect victims of human trafficking, punish traffickers, and prevent this crime and human rights abuse from occurring."