Wisconsin Assembly task force releases slate of bills to combat human trafficking

A 13-member bipartisan Assembly task force formed to explore solutions to human trafficking in Wisconsin has released a package of 11 bills to address the issue.

Associated Press

January 10, 2024

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Jerry O'Connor speaks into multiple microphones with the flags of different media organizations mounted to a wood podium with a sign affixed to its front reading Speaker's Task Force on Human Trafficking and Setting The Captives Free, with other people standing to his side and behind him, in a room with a carved fireplace lintel, the U.S. flag and toile wallpaper.

State Rep. Jerry O'Connor, R-Fond du Lac, introduces a bipartisan package of legislation to combat human trafficking during a news conference on Jan. 10, 2024 in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, as other members of the Assembly's human trafficking task force look on (Credit: AP Photo / Todd Richmond)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A task force that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created to bolster Wisconsin’s response to human trafficking finished its work on Jan. 10 by introducing a slate of bills that would increase awareness of the issue, impose tougher punishments for soliciting prostitutes and make it easier for victims to sue traffickers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as using force, fraud or coercion to obtain some kind of labor or commercial sex act. That can include slavery and prostitution rings. It is a worldwide problem; the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified 796 cases in Wisconsin since the hotline began in 2007 involving 1,640 victims.

Shared Hope International, an organization that works to eradicate trafficking, gave Wisconsin laws addressing trafficking an “F” grade for 2023. The organization said it found multiple areas in the statutes lacking, including financial penalties for trafficking and crime victim compensation, as well as training for police, prosecutors, school workers and child welfare workers.

Vos, a Republican, appointed 13 lawmakers to the task force in August 2023. The group held four public hearings with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and nonprofit organizations that support trafficking victims over the course of the fall. The task force introduced 11 bills at a news conference in the state Capitol on the morning of Jan. 10.

“At the end of the day we want to know we made a difference and didn’t just take up space here at the Capitol for four months,” the panel’s chair, Republican Rep. Jerry O’Connor, said.

The first bill would create a human trafficking council that would maintain an inventory of human trafficking prevention programs in Wisconsin, compile data on human trafficking offenses, study how traffickers use social media and develop a plan to prevent trafficking. The measure also would require police to compete a training course in recognizing and investigating trafficking. Counties with high levels of trafficking would have to establish trafficking task forces.

A second bill would require schools to educate students in grades 7-12 on human trafficking prevention and teachers to receive training on how to identify children who might be at risk of being trafficked.

Another measure would require group home workers and all other workers likely to interact with vulnerable individuals, including security guards, hotel managers and adult entertainment venue managers, to receive training on identifying trafficking victims and how to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Other bills would require cosmetology and barber schools to instruct students on the dynamics of exploitation and how to report it. Bars, job recruitment centers, schools, group homes and tattoo parlors would have to display human trafficking posters created by the state Justice Department.

Soliciting prostitution would be charged as a Class G felony, rather than a Class H felony, increasing the maximum sentence from six years in prison to 10 years. Anyone convicted of solicitation would face a mandatory minimum prison sentence ranging from six months for a first offense to three years for a fourth or subsequent offense.

The legislation also clarifies that child trafficking victims can bring a civil lawsuit against their traffickers until they turn 35 years old and can sue regardless of whether anyone was prosecuted or convicted.

At least four other bills dealing with human trafficking have been floating around the Legislature since early 2023, but they have yet to receive a floor vote in either the Assembly or Senate. The proposals would provide criminal immunity for prostitutes under age 18; tighten regulations for adult entertainment establishments; create a task force on missing Black women and girls; and prohibit taking in a runaway child without notifying police.

It’s unclear if any of those bills or the task force’s proposals will clear either house before the two-year legislative session ends in early 2024. The Assembly is expected to adjourn for the session late in February.

Vos spokesperson Angela Joyce didn’t immediately respond to an email on Jan. 10 inquiring about whether the speaker supports the legislation. Brian Radday, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, also didn’t immediately respond to an email.

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