By The Associated Press
OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says he will ask lawmakers for tougher state laws to deal with trafficking in human beings.
Hood recently wrapped a two-day conference in Ocean Springs that focused on the questions of what is human trafficking and how can it be stopped.
“Trafficking can be separated into two different categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” Heather Wagner, an assistant attorney general. “So sex trafficking is only a part of the overall issue that we’re facing.”
Changing minds and attitudes about human trafficking isn’t easy, said Judy McKee with the National Association of Attorneys General.
“It’s a very long hard process, but we have, as I said, a whole generation of children that we need to be reaching out to and working with and try to rehabilitate so they can become survivors instead of victims,” McKee said.
Hood said far often than not, the victims are really thought of as criminals.
“If people like social workers begin to recognize it, if people like prosecutors recognize, hey, this girl is a teenage prostitute. But is somebody making her do this? Or is she being coerced or sold? Then I think we’ll begin to see a lot more reports of it,” Hood said.
Hood said he is working with legislators to strengthen state laws prohibiting human trafficking and the exploitation of children.
Among the proposals he’s working with legislators on is a bill mandating reporting of minors in the commercial sex trade as victims of child abuse or neglect.
Hood wants legislation offering protection to minors who are forced to prostitute themselves and heavier penalties for those who solicit and pay for their services.
Hood also hopes to have forfeiture laws in place for the human trafficking offenders and a form of restitution for the minor victims of the profitable sex trade.
Biloxi police Sgt. Aldon Helmert, who works in the special-crimes division, said local, state and federal authorities are working to identify human trafficking sex rings and the minor victims in those cases.
The penalty for those accused of human trafficking, he said, carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
One problem officers run into, he said, is that some of the victims view the people who put them in the business more like caretakers because they give them a place to stay, food and clothing.