LITTLE ROCK — A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced plans Friday to file legislation this year to strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws.
"This is a very important issue for the nation, a very important issue for the world and for the state of Arkansas," Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
Worldwide, human trafficking generates about $9 billion annually and victimizes about 27 million people, including about 13,000 children, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group working to curb human trafficking in the United States. The group says the United States ranks third in the world in human trafficking, and it is at its worst in California, New New York, Nevada and Texas.
Rapert said Arkansas is one of four states, with Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, that have not enacted a basic legal framework to combat human trafficking.
"Traffic victims normally don’t get help because they feel that they or their families will get hurt by traffickers," he said.
During the news conference, Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay said the problem is growing in Arkansas because Interstates 30 and 40 are popular cross-country routes.
"Local law enforcement recognizes that this is a statewide problem, a national problem, but when you consider the Interstate 30, Interstate 40 corridor across the state Arkansas is centrally located for the transport of victims and where the tragedy takes place."
Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, who along with Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, are spearheading efforts to strengthen the state’s laws, said at least three separate bills will be filed within the next few weeks to deal with human trafficking. The Legislature convenes Monday.
One measure would raise the penalty for a conviction on a human trafficking charges from a Class A felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine, to a Class Y felony, punishable by up 10 to 40 years or life in prison.
A second proposal would change state laws to allow certain convictions, such as prostitution, to be vacated to help the victims of human trafficking.
A third measure would allow the state Department of Human Services to consider opening shelters across the state to help victims of human trafficking.
Louise Allison of Partners Against Trafficking Humans said one shelter opened last year and houses up to eight adult women. A second, which will be able to house up to 25 adults and children, is expected to open within the next few months.
Allison said the two PATH shelters are located in the Little Rock area and advocates hope DHS can open other shelters across the state.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she supported the three proposals expected to be filed this year. She said she filed legislation to try to address the issue in 2005 but got little support.
"I am particularly gratified to be here today with all this support," Elliott said, adding that the problem exists but most Arkansans don’t know anything about it.
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said Arkansas has become a place for human traffickers to come and operate because the state has few laws addressing the issue.
"I certainly don’t want to see the bills we pass the session be the end of it," Leding told reporters after the news conference. "This is something that is going to continue to need to be address down the road."
Leding said everyone he has talked to supports the proposals.
"It clearly is a bipartisan issue, it’s not partisan in any way," he said.