Monday, March 20, 2023

Legislature should join law enforcement, AG in getting tough on human traffickers

by Dan Smith
| March 19, 2023 12:00 AM

Human trafficking is happening in Montana, and it can happen to anyone at any time.

Often accurately described as modern-day slavery, human trafficking most often shows up in Montana as sex trafficking. For example, a pimp may force a young girl into commercial sex work against her will. As law enforcement officers in our local communities, we need better tools in our toolbox to protect Montanans from this heinous crime.

As the state's foremost police organization representing nearly 800 municipal officers from 25 different agencies, we are proud to support Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Representative Jodee Echert's legislation that strengthens our state’s human trafficking laws and increases penalties for those who participate in human trafficking.

House Bill 112 will clarify the crime and make it easier for law enforcement, prosecutors, victims, and potential jurors to understand by simplifying the current statute into four clear, straight-forward categories. It will also increase punishments for offenders who encourage or compel a victim to engage in commercial sexual activity and those who patronize the system. Not only will the overall sentence be increased, but mandatory minimums will be put in place for the worst-of-the-worst offenders.

Additionally, the bill will make it crystal clear that those who patronize or encourage sex trafficking of minors will be held accountable for their conduct. Our current human trafficking laws don’t do enough to punish offenders and protect victims.

We are also in desperate need of more human trafficking agents on the streets to help our local agencies find these criminals and hold them accountable. Right now, the Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation only has two agents to assist the entire state in human trafficking investigations – that’s just not enough. In the last seven years, the number of cases they track has skyrocketed from seven to 106, an increase of 1,400 percent.

We also support the attorney general and governor’s proposal to increase the investment in public safety which would add four human trafficking agents to DCI’s current team that would be available to help us fight human trafficking in our communities and provide comprehensive coverage of the state. To help prosecute the increased caseload, the proposal would also fund an additional prosecutor.

Our officers enjoy a great, collaborative relationship with the Department of Justice and are thankful for their help and the attorney general’s attention to this matter over the last two years. The training that our cadets receive at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy helps our new officers spot human trafficking and what to do when they do see it in the field.

Now, it’s time for the Legislature to do their part and help crack down on human traffickers by passing HB 112 and the DOJ budget to provide DCI with additional agents so they have the bandwidth they need to go after every offender and get them off our streets.

It’s time we send the message to offenders of sex trafficking that their criminal behavior will not be tolerated in Montana.

Dan Smith is the executive director of the Montana Police Protective Association, which represents municipal patrol officers across Montana.

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