York legislators' proposal would double jail time for human traffickers and their patrons

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
State Sen. Kristin Phillip-Hill is joined by advocates as she, alongside state Rep. Seth Grove, unveils anti-human trafficking legislation on Wednesday, Jan. 9. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

Republican state legislators unveiled a bill that would double the maximum jail time for human traffickers and those who solicit human trafficking victims in an effort to curb the underground industry. 

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, announced the legislation they'll be introducing, the Buyer Beware Act, also known as House Bill 12 and Senate Bill 60, at a news conference  Wednesday, Jan. 9. 

Ultimately, the sex trade operates as any other trade business — on the laws of supply and demand, Grove said. 

"Unfortunately, our crimes code often minimizes penalties for those who purchase sex, thus not creating enough disincentive," he said. "In order to create this disincentive, the commonwealth must bring forth the full force of our justice system." 

As demand decreases, supply will follow — putting human trafficking out of business, he said. 

The day before Grove and Phillips-Hill announced the proposed state bill, President Donald Trump signed the Frederick Douglas Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018.

The federal bill reauthorizes and modifies the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, granting $430 million into efforts against human trafficking. 

Pennsylvania State Rep. Seth Grove reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget address at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Proposed changes: Under current law, trafficking is a second-degree felony unless a victim is a minor.

The bill would amend that distinction, classifying trafficking as a first-degree felony and creating a maximum sentence of 20 years of jail time for traffickers. 

The average age of a human trafficking victim is between 12 and 14, officials said. 

The bill also would expand the definition of human trafficking to include anyone who patronizes or advertises a victim of trafficking, mirroring federal law. 

It would effectively broaden the terms on which a patron of a victim of trafficking can be charged. Current law states a person commits a crime if they engage in a sex act knowing the individual is a victim of human trafficking. 

If the Buyer Beware Act is passed, a person can be charged if he "should have known" or "recklessly disregards" the fact that he's sexually engaging with a victim of human trafficking. 

That's a critical aspect of the bill, said York County District Attorney Dave Sunday.

"The people that are doing the trafficking are not just the individuals likely supporting the person being trafficked with food or forcing them into servitude but also the individuals who are fueling economically this entire situation and those are the people soliciting the services," Sunday said. 

Without individuals "seeking those services," the industry wouldn't exist, he said.  

Difficult to track: It's difficult to track data of the underground industry, said Shea Rhodes, director and co-founder of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law.

However, since September 2014, when Pennsylvania's comprehensive human trafficking law went into effect, the institute has tracked 33 convictions across the state, Rhodes said. 

Twenty-six cases were withdrawn, and 14 additional cases transitioned from state to federal court, she added.

Rhodes echoed Sunday's point that victims are often charged while solicitors walk free. 

In 2017, there were 1,443 people charged with prostitution and only 447 charges of buying sex across the state, she said.

"If you do the math a little bit and take those 1,443 cases, and if one of those individuals had roughly five sex buyers a day — and I think that's a low number — that means a little more than 7,200 people got away with the crime of buying sex," she said. 

Statewide issue: Though data is hard to pin down because of the underground nature of the illegal industry, officials said it's far reaching across the state. 

"It's not restricted to any one part of the state or any single kind of community," Phillips-Hill said. 

Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill R-28th District, takes her seat on the Senate floor during Swearing-in Day at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Victims are reported not only from big cities but in places such as York, Lancaster and Harrisburg, she said. 

More:Ohio trio accused of human trafficking in York County

More:AG: 2 busted for trafficking women in York, other counties

In November 2017, a state police investigation with help from Northern Regional Police led to the arrest of two New Jersey men for allegedly trafficking women in York and other counties. 

In April 2017, two Ohio brothers and one's girlfriend were arrested and accused of trafficking in York County. 

"The tentacles of this savage crime extend into small towns and neighborhoods, where it's hidden in the shadows and victims are either too frightened to seek help or trapped by malicious cultural norms," Phillip-Hill said. 

The message is clear: "Human trafficking is real; it is dangerous; and it is happening in your county," she said.