The Georgia Senate’s unanimous vote in support of the human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims is an historic victory, state child advocates say.
“To have legislation written and passed in the same session is amazing and seems historic,” gushes Street GRACE Executive Director Cheryl DeLuca Johnson. “This is huge! The leadership of [lead sponsor] Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta) and [supporter] Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Gwinnett) was invaluable to this process.”
Julianna McConnell agrees. “I’ve been a lobbyist for 20 years and this is probably one of the most fulfilling moments of my career,” says McConnell, Street GRACE advocacy chairperson. “This legislation is not about the work of one person; it’s been an ongoing effort for several years. To pass both the House and the Senate with just one dissenting vote in the House says a lot. It’s like Rep. Lindsey said, this legislation ‘applies Old Testament justice against those who commit the crime of trafficking and provides New Testament compassion for those who are victims.”
McConnell says the victory is especially important because Atlanta is a known hub for human trafficking. Street GRACE representatives say about 375 girls are exploited in Georgia each month, with the majority of the illegal incidents occurring in Atlanta. In that same time frame, the organization estimates, about 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly purchase sex from teen girls in the state. “It’s not just the pimps, we also need to crack down on the Johns; the buyers,” says supporter Katherine White McCullough. “We have to get to that point in society where we no longer say ‘boys will be boys.’ These people are buying children younger and younger and that’s not okay.”
Liz Odom of Decatur says she ventured down to the capitol as a show of support for the measure. “A lot of people don’t know what’s happening here in our state,” she says. “This vote shows that we’re ready for a change in Georgia. This is truly a testament that people care.”
HB 200 passed out of the Senate unanimously without any amendments Tuesday, setting off a wave of excitement among the small group of supporters gathered in the state capitol. About 40 men and women, mostly from local churches and community organizations, donned black shirts and purple scarves in a show of support. Nikema Williams was among those sporting the scarves handed out by representatives from We Urge You, the umbrella organization for non-profits Street GRACE, A Future. Not A Past and Wellspring Living. “It just feels good to win,” says the Northwest Atlanta resident. “This is an opportunity for Georgia’s policies to no longer mirror third world countries in regards to this issue.”
Her fellow supporter Amber English says she was elated to be at the capitol in time for the final vote. “Usually people are up here protesting or opposing something,” she says. “It’s always good to see something positive happen. The fact that it was a unanimous vote definitely makes the strong statement that this is legislation that we all can get behind.”
Key provisions in HB 200 include:
- Provides an expanded definition of “coercion” in the human trafficking statute, to include causing or threatening financial harm.
- Prohibits defense by blood relation – such as parents exploiting their children – or by marriage – such as a husband “selling” his wife.
- Significantly beefs up penalties for human traffickers who target minors. If the victim is at least 16 but less than 18 years old, the crime is a felony and punishable by 5-20 years in prison and a fine of $2,500 to $10,000. If the victim is under 16 years old, the crime is a felony and punishable by 10-30 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
- Treats those in sexual servitude as victims, not criminals, by offering them recovery under the state crime victims fund.
- Provides an affirmative defense for victims when coming forward to the sexual crimes of prostitution, sodomy, solicitation of sodomy and masturbation for hire if the defendant was being trafficked for sexual servitude.
- Allows the state to seize any real or personal property that a trafficker used for, or bought with the proceeds of the crime.
- Requires law enforcement agencies to receive training on how to relate to human trafficking victims.
“We, as a state, are saying to these traffickers ‘you are no longer allowed to do this to our children in Georgia,’” adds McConnell. “And if you do, we will are now able to increase the penalties and seize all of your assets. HB 200 includes training for law enforcement and involves the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. This is very well-rounded legislation.”
Rep. Lindsey’s bill built upon the foundation established by a failed measure introduced last year by Sen. Unterman, which pushed for children 16 and under to be treated as victims and not criminals in prostitution cases. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens had members of his staff work with Rep. Lindsey to strengthen the legal framework for the new measure, in hopes that it would avoid a similar fate.
On the heels of the victory, supporters of the measure say now it is time to gear up for the next stage of their efforts. “Now that we have a good bill, we have to make sure it is implemented,” says McCullough. “A Future Not A Past has already trained over $2,000 law enforcement officers across the state. We’re also doing a series of trainings with prosecutors. We will all have to continue this grass roots movement.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.