NEW ULM — U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a roundtable discussion with law enforcement and advocates fighting against human trafficking in the New Ulm City Hall Council Chambers Saturday afternoon.

The stop was part of a 10-county swing through the area Klobuchar held Friday and Saturday, touching on different issues from the Farm Bill to energy to human trafficking.

In New Ulm Klobuchar highlighted federal progress made in efforts to curb trafficking and heard from local stakeholders about their priorities.

A national leader in combating human trafficking, Klobuchar’s bipartisan bill signed into law in 2015, S.178 – the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, was inspired by Minnesota’s “Safe Harbor” law. It provides incentives for all states to have a safe harbor provision.

The Safe Harbor law considers the underage girls trafficked for sex to be victims instead of offenders and makes provisions for helping them escape the sex trade.

Approved by a House vote of 420-3 and 990-0 in the Senate, the bill amended federal criminal code to impose an additional assessment of $5,000 on any non-indigent person or entity convicted of an offense involving trafficking in persons; sexual abuse; sex exploitation and other abuse of children; transportation for illegal sexual activity; or human smuggling. The assessment continues until the end of fiscal year 2019.

The fund awards grants to states and localities to combat trafficking, provide protection and assistance for trafficking victims; develop and implement child abuse investigation and prosecution programs, and provide services for victims of child pornography.

“I want to thank you for your good work. We’ve done a lot of work on this too,” Klobuchar said.

New Ulm Police Dept. Senior Investigator Jeff Hohensee said local and area law enforcement human trafficking efforts began after Nicollet County Sheriff’s Dept. Investigator Marc Chadderdon attended human trafficking training in the Twin Cities a couple years ago.

“Marc came back here and led sting operations in Nicollet, Brown and Blue Earth counties,” Hohensee said. “It didn’t take us long to realize we had a (human trafficking) problem here. We were overwhelmed with calls in our first effort.”

In multiple sting operations in 2015, including operations focused on the web site, 48 arrests were made around New Ulm, St. Peter and Mankato.

“People are willing to drive hundreds of miles to New Ulm to have sex with teenage girls,” Hohensee said.

Brown County Attorney Chuck Hanson said phones rang off the hook during sex string operations.

“I don’t think many people realized this could happen in New Ulm,” Hanson said. “After we did a few sting operations, some callers would hang up when they learned the women were in New Ulm, which was wear stings were done.”

“On the flip side, we use prevention programs like My Life, My Choice, a survivor-led program that works to end commercial sexual exploitation of children by empowering youth and their allies to fight back,” said Juli Fast of the Southwest Crisis Center. “We learned about young girls trading sex acts for a place to stay or drugs and alcohol.”

Jackie Krehbiel of the New Ulm Human Rights Commission said she’d like to see human trafficking prevention programs start in grade six.

“It’s scary to parents and children, but they need to know this is happening,” Krehbiel said.

Hohensee praised Krehbiel for distributing trafficking information brochures and distributing them to local hotels.

“I’m proud to be sitting next to her today,” Hohensee said.

“Education is key. Kids have access to so much stuff now,” Hanson said.

Hohensee praised local media coverage of sex sting operations including The Journal’s placing photos of people charged with prostitution on the front page.

“I think people should have to register as sex offenders if they want to have sex with a 15-year-old girl,” Hohensee said.

“Registration is a big hammer we can use,” Hanson said.

Brown County District Court Judge Robert Docherty said so far, only one of dozens of prostitution cases has gone to trial. He said the other cases have been prosecuted.

Fast said she would like to see more strict prostitution laws.

“Some people get in more trouble for buying pot than prostitution,” Fast said.

Klobuchar said sentences for repeat prostitution offenders have increased recently.

“We need to work with the women involved in prostitution,” Hohensee said. “We’ve lost a few women here (in sting operations) after their pimps dropped them off.”

Klobuchar said her law approved two years ago helps generate more grant funding for shelters and opioid addiction treatment.

Fast said people need to understand the average age of a person viewing pornography is 10.8 years old.

Hanson said prostitution conviction surcharges of $750 to $1,500 are mostly used to fund sting future operations.

Hohensee said area human trafficking sting operations have grown by “leaps and bounds” the past 2 1/2 years.

“I’m excited to be proactive on this,” Hohensee said. “People didn’t think this happened in farm communities, but we’ve proven that wrong.”