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The 13th Amendment to the Constitution states that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States — yet human trafficking is present in every state, and few laws or systems are in place to stop it.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy weighed in during a discussion at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting on the potential adoption of the Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking.
While at “Spotlight on Human Trafficking: New Law and Next Steps,” Kennedy described the “dehumanizing process” of slavery that Frederick Douglass articulated in his autobiography two centuries ago. “From a historical perspective, we can somehow understand the injustice of it better than the injustice in our own time.” For Kennedy, attention to human trafficking and what can be done now to attack the problem is critical.
In July 2013, the Uniform Law Commission passed the Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking Act, a comprehensive law that holds traffickers accountable while also providing critical protections for victims.
“Two years of careful analysis and sometimes frustrating debate, the revision of multiple drafts and substantial review by our commission led to the final approval of the act,” said Michael Houghton, immediate past president of the ULC and partner at Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP. Houghton emphasized that it is “extremely unusual” for the ULC to bring a resolution forward to the ABA House of Delegates for its consideration only a month after its own approval, but the ULC agreed with President Laurel G. Bellows that “the magnitude of human suffering brought about by human trafficking demands quick action on our part and timely enactment of the new act by legislators.”
Resolution 102 approves the Uniform Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking Act as an appropriate act for states desiring to adopt a specific substantive law to combat modern day slavery.
“We don’t want to duplicate, we want to collaborate,” Bellows said. “We wanted to jump in and eradicate slavery in the United States of America.”
“We are putting a face, a name, an identity, a human being attached to what some people would like to be invisible,” added Nancy O’Malley, who has helped prosecute 350 human trafficking cases in Alameda County as district attorney. She called the new law “a major milestone for bringing uniformity and awareness to all states as well as our federal government.”
Supporting victims is important for their recovery but also, Houghton said, “an integral part in securing convictions.”
As a survivor advocate, Kavitha Sreeharsha of the Global Freedom Center reiterated the importance of providing enough help for those traumatized by brutal captors. “There are so many other steps that need to take place immediately not only to ensure effective support and rehabilitation, but also for an effective prosecution,” Sreeharsha said.
For survivors of human trafficking, recovering from exploitation is a long-term ordeal. The brutality of trafficking does not exist in a criminal vacuum, but rather involves several other violations and offenses that victims could be found guilty of in a court of law.
“Many victims of human trafficking have been convicted of prostitution or other offenses they committed while being trafficked,” said Samanatha Vardaman, senior director and counsel at Shared Hope International. “This provision will allow survivors to bring motions to vacate those convictions,” which she mentioned are often barriers to housing, scholarships, jobs, security clearances and fiduciary responsibilities. “We need this remedy so that survivors can clear their records and become involved,” Vardaman said.
During and after the trafficking, financial security is a factor. “Traffickers are taking advantage and making money off of victims. Victims at the same time are in economically vulnerable positions,” Sreeharsha said. “Immediately, economics come to the forefront. What are you going to do if you prosecute a case and a victim has no other opportunity? They are going to end up re-exploited.”
To prevent this cycle, Sreeharsha shared the numerous resources that victims need, like access to public benefits, safe housing, legal services, mental health services, medical and dental care, job training, education, language classes and more.
With the new law, a trafficker’s assets can be made available to victims in order to help them recover and get back on track to leading a normal life free of forced servitude. “Restitution and forfeiture become very critical tools,” said O’Malley, noting that a trafficker can easily make more than $125,000 a year on each victim and that there are very few traffickers who have one victim. Sreeharsha also stressed the importance of returning the profits to those victimized, saying that access to damages and monetary relief is “so critical for them to rebuild their lives.”
“Now we need two things to happen: Every state has to adopt this law, and every state has to adopt something a little bit stronger,” added Bellows. And many panelists agreed about the need to enhance and improve upon the uniform law in the future. O’Malley referenced the new law as “the floor for all states to start building their legislation,” and Houghton commented, “I think in the next two to four years you will see refinement.”
But Bellows expressed impatience when it comes to eradicating modern-day slavery. “I don’t want to be talking about this two or three years from now,” Bellows said. “We actually have the power in this country to eliminate slavery here.”