The Massachusetts Senate recently advanced important legislation pertaining to human trafficking, S. 2444, An Act to strengthen the anti-human trafficking law. The legislation increases protections for survivors of human trafficking while providing tools for public awareness, data reporting, and training for law enforcement, court personnel, health professionals and educators.
“Human trafficking is an atrocity that affects mostly women and children,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “Whether forced into the commercial sex trade or involuntary labor, it is akin to slavery. I am pleased that the Senate has advanced this effort to build on our earlier efforts and further strengthen protections for those affected by this terrible crime.”
In 2011, the Legislature passed the state’s first anti-human trafficking law, one of the strongest in the county. That legislation criminalized human trafficking for commercial and sexual exploitation of people, including severe punishments ranging from 5 years to life imprisonment. It also provided survivors with an affirmative defense to any potential prostitution charge as a result of being trafficked. Survivors further gained a civil remedy and access to the Victims of Human Trafficking Trust Fund.
The newly-passed human trafficking bill provides a significant update to strengthen this law by adopting several measures. First, the legislation will close the so-called bodyworks loophole that allows persons practicing “bodywork therapy” an exemption from the massage therapy licensing requirements. This lack of regulatory oversight has generated a pathway for traffickers to establish operations in communities throughout the Commonwealth while maintaining a public façade that insinuates a legitimate business. The Senate bill addresses the problem by establishing a statewide board of bodywork therapy that will provide oversight of bodywork establishments and require individual licensure for practitioners.
The legislation also includes significant tools for victims to help restore their lives. The timeframe to file a civil suit against a trafficker is extended from a mere 3 years to 10 years. Victims will also have access to expanded affirmative defenses to criminal charges related to sex crimes, and will have the ability to petition the court to vacate a prior conviction for any offense not a felony committed as a result of being a human trafficking victim. Upon a vacated conviction, victims can further seek to have their record sealed by in order to help aid the victim in obtaining housing, employment and other vital measures needed to live a healthy quality of life. Under the bill, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services is also directed to report to the legislature the current adequacy and limitations on current victim services dealing with safety, support, housing, health and education. The report must also identify the number of beds and victims served at safe house facilities throughout the state.
Final provisions in the bill include enhanced data collection to better track human trafficking crimes and identify any patterns or characteristics useful to law enforcement for investigations, arrests and prosecutions. Mandatory training for law enforcement, health professionals, and K-12 educators is also implemented to help personnel identify victims and trafficking offenses. Finally, a public awareness campaign will be developed and awareness signs shall be posted in high-risk locations such as adult entertainment facilities and foreign cash transfers.
The bill subsequently moved to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.