By Kirsten Powers
Minnesota brings many things to mind — open prairies, 10,000 lakes and Midwestern values. Yet even in America's heartland, the most wretched of crimes, human trafficking, is a growing menace.
Last year, the FBI identified Minnesota as one of the nation's 13 largest centers for child sex trafficking. The Women's Funding Network says that monthly, about 200 adolescents are sold for sex there through the Internet and escort services. In 2011, Minnesota courts hadnearly 400 trafficking-related convictions.
"People have to realize that this is the third biggest criminal enterprise in the world. Drugs, guns and then human trafficking," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told me last week. "It's really happening, and it's in (your) backyard."
Earlier this year, a Minnesota man received a record 40-year sentence for trafficking women and girls for a decade. He and his family sold women and girls — one as young as 15 — on the Internet for sex and kept them trapped in a life authorities described as "slavery."
This story is all too common. Nationwide, the number of trafficked children is a staggering 100,000 a year. Many grow into trafficked adults. The Associated Press reports that the California Attorney General's office found that "72% of human-trafficking victims are Americans and not foreigners as many in the public believe."
Klobuchar has emerged as a leader in fighting this scourge and has just returned from Mexico, where she discussed joint efforts to fight sex trafficking. She has also co-sponsored the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. It would require states to pass "safe harbor" legislation that provides victims with protective services and counseling rather than incarceration.
For too long, the victims have been treated as criminals. In 2010, the Texas Supreme Court reversed a 13-year-old's prostitution conviction for offering oral sex to an undercover officer for $20. The court stated what should have been obvious: "Because a 13-year-old child cannot consent to sex as a matter of law (they) cannot be prosecuted as a prostitute."
It's mind-boggling that it took a state supreme court to state such an obvious truth. This pervasive mentality of punishing the victims is what makes Klobuchar's legislation so critical.
The bill would also foster a National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking by encouraging cooperation among federal, state and local agencies. Other states certainly could benefit from Minnesota's experience. A local news report last month recounted an undercover sting by St. Paul police officers who called girls listed on backpage.com who looked underage. Police wanted to connect them to services that could help them start a new life.
When the police met two girls, both 18, officers heard a familiar refrain: I've been wanting out, but my pimp wouldn't let me leave. Police weren't out to arrest the young women. They arrested the pimp. What a novel idea.