The Virginia General Assembly is considering two bills that, if passed, would make it a felony to recruit or entice others into the commercial sex trade. That would include using force or threats against victims or their families to coerce them into prostitution or the manufacture of child pornography. The proposed legislation would also set penalties for sex trafficking crimes.
Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R), who represents parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties, introduced the legislation in the House of Delegates. He said in an interview that he has been working on the issue since a former staff member told him four years ago how serious the sex trafficking problem is in Northern Virginia.
“I was thinking, ‘This can’t happen here in Virginia,’ ” Hugo said. “But unfortunately, sadly, it is happening in Virginia and in Northern Virginia.
“It’s a unique confluence of events,” he said. “You have money, you have a transient population, and you have roads and airports, so people come in and out . . . and unfortunately that’s a confluence of events that make it a ripe environment for human trafficking.”
Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun) said in an interview that it can be difficult to prosecute traffickers who lure young women into the commercial sex trade because it might appear that the women are entering voluntarily. Often, though, they are victims of fraud or coercion.
Wexton co-sponsored a bill on human trafficking last year. “It sailed through the Senate” but died in committee in the House, she said.
Unlike most other states, Virginia does not have laws that specifically target human trafficking. Law enforcement and school officials who conduct training sessions on teen trafficking prevention for Prince William schools said that the absence of such laws makes it more difficult to prosecute people for luring young people into the commercial sex trade.
“I have to become very, very creative when I place the charges on these individuals,” Detective Maria Cervantes of the Prince William County Police Department said in a December training session for educators. “I [have to use] procuring, pandering, transportation, abduction.”
Betsy Young, supervisor of social workers for Prince William schools, said that the lack of trafficking laws in Virginia also makes it difficult to collect statistics to determine the severity of the problem.
“It’s almost impossible for us to track the data,” she said during the training session. “And we need data, because data gets us money, gets us support services.”
Young said in an e-mail that she hopes the General Assembly passes the legislation.
“It is excellent legislation, not only because it punishes traffickers, but it will allow us to be more in line with other states in keeping statistics on the number of traffickers in Virginia,” she said, adding that her opinion did not necessarily reflect the views of the school system.
Hugo said he is optimistic that the trafficking legislation will pass both houses of the General Assembly this year. A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-
Harrisonburg) passed the Senate 37-0 last week.
“We’re very, very hopeful and very confident that we’ll get this bill through and onto the governor’s desk,” Hugo said.
“The point is to say, ‘Our children are not for sale — not now, not ever,’ ” Hugo said. “And I think we need to keep saying that, but also put more teeth into the law. . . . I think that, working together, we’re going to get that done.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.