Oklahoma House panel supports human trafficking bill
BY DAN HOLTMEYER Associated Press
Wednesday, February 06, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma state representative asked colleagues Wednesday to join seven other states that allow human trafficking victims to clear certain criminal records.
Without debate or opposition, the House Public Safety Committee approved the proposal from Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, sending it to the full House of Representatives. The bill would allow victims of sex trafficking to petition to have prostitution convictions cleared.
Suzi Hanson, manager of Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans' Oklahoma City office, hailed the decision as "wonderful."
"It means that eyes are finally being opened," she said, adding victims "are no longer being punished for something they're forced to do."
New York and six other states have passed similar law since 2010, according to the Polaris Project, a national advocacy group that says these laws ensure victims aren't treated as criminals.
Statistics for human trafficking are virtually impossible to track, but law enforcement officials and trafficking experts say the transport and exploitation of children, men and women for labor or sex work is one of the world's largest and fastest growing criminal enterprises, claiming millions of victims and billions of dollars for traffickers.
The United States is both a major destination and source of victims, according to the Polaris Project, and Oklahoma remains a top stop for traffickers thanks to its high drug use, poverty and the crossroads of three major interstate highways in its capital city. All have given Oklahoma a dark reputation for the problem.
"We're very vulnerable," Hanson said. "Our highways are traveled by traffickers on a regular basis."
The state's Legislature was spurred to action two years ago after the discovery of the mutilated body of 19-year-old Carina Saunders in a duffle bag behind a supermarket in Bethany, Okla., an incident that was eventually found to be a gruesome warning to other human trafficking victims in the area.
"I, just like the average person, was totally unaware that the problem was going on," Kern said in an interview before Wednesday's hearing. "Our legislative body has been made aware over the past few years of how much of a problem this is."
The following year Oklahoma's state legislature dedicated a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs division to the issue and unanimously passed another bill sponsored by Kern and Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, that bolstered laws related to trafficking of children.
Darrell Weaver, the bureau's director, said he couldn't say how many victims would fall under Kern's new bill but gave it his support.
"I like the philosophy of it," Weaver said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If these people are coerced or threatened with violence, they need that expunged."
His perspective changed, Weaver added, after researching the problem with experts around the country.
"We're just right now in Oklahoma trying to wrap our arms around it," he said, adding of the bill, "Gosh, if you think about it, it's kind of common sense."