Human trafficking a growing concern among lawmakers, enforcers

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – During the upcoming legislative session, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office will make a push to tighten Mississippi’s human trafficking laws.
As it stands, someone who traffics humans to sell their forced labor or services is subject to up to 30 years in prison. Anyone who benefits from those services can be sentenced to 20 years in prison, and anyone who restricts access to a person’s immigration or government documents in order to secure their labor can be dealt up to five years in prison.
The potential prison sentence for illegally selling the labor and services of people is the same as trafficking drugs, but with drug trafficking convictions come hefty fines of up to $1 million.
Heather Wagner, Mississippi’s special assistant attorney general, said adding teeth to the human trafficking law will not only help enforcement, but also could deter the rising national criminal trend.
“Right now, even if we had a perfect investigation of a human trafficking case, what do we do with the victim?” asked Wagner. “If it’s a minor child who’s been involved with prostitution, putting them in a home with other children may not work and if it’s an adult, they need resources we don’t currently have.”
Two Mississippi men were indicted in Jackson in October for one count each of child sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion and one count each of selling or buying of children. The charges are related to a video that authorities say shows them having sex with a girl who is 3 or 4 years old.
Wagner said access to the Gulf Coast ports, the I-55, I-10 and I-20 corridors, international airports and fast access to large cities like New Orleans, Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta make Mississippi prime for seeing human trafficking.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said he would like to see stricter laws before trafficking becomes a significant problem in the area.
“Here in our county you have two major corridors – Highways 45 and 78,” Johnson said. “It’s already been proven that those two corridors link different states as a means of transport for drugs and ammunition. That’s the route they’ll be taking. The people organizing these things aren’t going to be in Tupelo, Mississippi, or Louisiana or on the Gulf Coast, they’re going to be somewhere else and they’re going to farm this out and what they’re doing is looking at which state has which laws and where arrests are happening.”
Proactive legislation to deter human traffic before it becomes commonplace is what Johnson said is key.
Wagner said the legislation they want to see passed will allow courts to charge traffickers with a heavy fine in addition to jail time. It also would create a victims’ compensation system so that victims of trafficking can receive services to help them re-enter society.
Wagner said they also are hoping to add asset forfeiture language to the law that will allow authorities to take the vehicles used by traffickers to transport victims and the buildings used to house them in order to help pay for the investigations and victims services.
One Biloxi police officer who has been a part of multiple trafficking investigations, Sgt. Aldon Helmert, has been working with the Attorney General’s Office to get practical language in the laws that law enforcement can use.
“If this guy is pimping these girls and getting some of the money or feeding them drugs to keep them around, there is no law – if he is in a brand-new Mercedes or a half-million dollar house – to penalize him.” Helmert said.
Helmert said he has seen traffickers and pimps come down to the Biloxi area from Memphis because the laws in Memphis are tighter. He also said drug dealers realized they can have their assets taken but pimps can’t so criminals are making the transition.
If a trafficking charge can’t be proven against a pimp, Helmert said the pimp, prostitute and buyer can all be charged under Mississippi’s prostitution statute – but that statute calls prostitution a misdemeanor, which carries only a six-month prison sentence and $200 fine. Illegal fornication, cohabitation and adultery carries a stiffer fine of six months and $500 in Mississippi.
Helmert said at least elevating the penalties on the prostitution statute – like the DUI statute – would be beneficial for halting traffickers. A first offense DUI carries a $1,000 maximum fine and a suspended license, a second DUI carries a $1,500 fine and up to one year and jail and a third DUI carries a felony penalty with up $5,000 and five years in jail.
Mississippi Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said a law that will force traffickers to pay for victims’ services is something the state needs.
“I am generally supportive of their bill,” Collins said of the bill that the Attorney General’s Office tried to pass last year. “I think it’s a huge issue I was previously not aware of and something we’ve got to do something about. The restitution process is something we need to discus, to make sure people who are victims of trafficking receive services.”
Wagner said they will push for a revised version of last year’s House Bill 845 and Senate Bill 2503 in the upcoming legislative session.
jb.clark@journalinc.com