Exploited Again: Senate Bill 178 Benefits Cops, Not Sex-Trafficking Victims

You don’t have to be caught up on House of Cards or paying attention to the news to know that in our political climate, getting Democrats and Republicans to vote unanimously is next to impossible.

But earlier this month, after weeks of gridlock, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Bill, SB 178, in a shocking 99-0 vote.

The bill created quite the buzz, being featured on The Daily Show and even the cover of The New York Times — but for all the wrong reasons.

This anti-trafficking bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, seemed like a shoo-in for bipartisan support. The force, fraud, or coercion of a person, particularly a minor, into the sex industry generally tugs at the heartstrings of most people with a pulse.

However, the bill was at a standstill for over a month after Democrats rescinded their support over a sticky anti-abortion provision. The majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., retaliated by refusing to schedule a vote to confirm the attorney general nomination of Loretta Lynch, who was eventually confirmed and will become the first African-American woman to fill the post.

Eventually, enough compromises were made to get everyone on board, and some are now celebrating the bill’s passage as a bipartisan win.

But those who work directly with victims of trafficking are dubious, at best, about how effective this bill will actually be.

The bill amends the federal code to impose an additional $5,000 fine on those who are convicted of crimes involving sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. The money from these fines will be funneled into a new Domestic Trafficking Victim’s Fund that will award “grants to combat trafficking.”

These grants will not be available to organizations that provide services directly to victims. One of the compromises that resulted from the monthlong partisan debacle is that none of the money from this fund can be applied to victims’ medical costs. This money will primarily go to law enforcement tools, training, and expansion.

“Though I appreciate the attempts of legislators to advance counter-trafficking bills at the federal and state levels,” said Jamie Walton, founder and president of the anti-trafficking Wayne Foundation, “as a survivor and advocate I can assure you that increasing penalties and jail times for johns will not deter the crime of sex trafficking.”

This year, Walton’s organization, which provides services for victims and advocates for them at the legislative level, and whose vice president is film director Kevin Smith, will open a drop-in center for youth who are affected by commercial sexual exploitation.

“If there is money in the budget to spare for a ‘victim’s fund,’ I would rather it go to the people who have been affected by the crime instead of to the needs of law enforcement,” Walton told me.

Kate D’Adamo, a national policy advocate for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in Washington, D.C., was also disturbed about the bill’s focus on expanding law enforcement, rather than focusing on the needs of the victims. “This bill, from its inception, has moved the focus away from the needs of actual victims of trafficking and towards the needs of law enforcement,” she told The Takeaway radio show last week. “Taking a purely law enforcement and criminal justice approach to trafficking is really the wrong approach.”

We’ve seen what the culture of law enforcement in this country does to marginalized individuals.

In light of all the police brutality our country has seen, why is the U.S. government continuing to put its faith in law enforcement when it comes to vulnerable populations like victims of trafficking?

“What we need to be doing is expanding the direly needed resources for marginalized communities [who are] vulnerable to trafficking,” D’Adamo continued.

This bill was purported to be a piece of legislation that would prioritize the victims of human trafficking, but for six weeks the political agendas of the party leaders took priority over actually accomplishing anything that would address issues of trafficking in a meaningful way.

“If the best thing we can say about a trafficking bill is that it’s bipartisan,” D’Adamo said, “then we aren’t doing our job.”

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