EDITORIAL: Working together to end sex trafficking

York Dispatch Editorial Board
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

Maybe this is a trend.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, has successfully gotten a bill through the Senate committee process with bipartisan support.

Her bill, the Buyer Beware Act, would increase the penalties for sex trafficking and punish the customers who know or should know that the prostitutes they frequent are not working of their own free will. It unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and is heading for the floor. It has 25 co-sponsors, including 10 Democrats.

More:Phillips-Hill sex trafficking bill clears committee with Dem support

More:Bipartisan effort under way in state House to repeal death penalty

This is good news for two reasons:

First, human trafficking is a horror that seems to be becoming more common in our society. There are women and children working as virtual slaves in the sex industry — yes, prostitution is an industry — and in other areas, too. 

And second, in a divided land with a sometimes fiercely divided Legislature, Phillips-Hill, as a freshman senator, has gotten support for a major issue from both sides of the aisle. 

If passed, the legislation would make sex trafficking a first-degree felony with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, doubling the current 10-year maximum that comes with its second-degree classification. The maximum fine for traffickers would also be doubled — to between $30,000 and $100,000 — if the victim is a minor.

The definition of trafficking would also be broadened to include patronizing or advertising a trafficking victim, making the state law match federal law. Anyone who "should have known" or "recklessly disregarded" the fact they're engaging with a sex trafficking victim would be included. And those who patronize victims of human trafficking would see their fine increase from the current $500 to between $1,000 and $30,000; if the victim is a minor, the fine would range from $5,000 to $100,000.

Sex trafficking is a growing problem in Pennsylvania. There were 154 cases reported in the state in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There were 73 cases reported in 2012. 

The commonwealth is mirroring a national trend. There were more than 6,000 cases of sex trafficking reported in the United State in 2017, the hotline said, up from less than 2,400 in 2012.  

Adding to the horror that human beings are being treated as a commodity to be used for a price is the fact that the average age for a victim of sex trafficking is 12 to 14 years old. 

Phillips-Hill's bill would help the victims of this crime by locking up both the traffickers who exploit them and the customers who make the sex industry so profitable. Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, is sponsoring the companion bill in the House, where it has 71 co-sponsors and has been sitting in the Judiciary Committee since January. 

That brings us to the second strength of Phillips-Hill's bill, the bipartisan support. After years of division that resulted in missed budget deadlines and legislative gridlock, the Legislature seems to have realized lately that the state runs better when the two main political parties actually talk to each other and find common ground.

There is a bipartisan push from the state House to repeal the death penalty, led by Reps. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia County, and Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon County. Even in Washington, there are some bipartisan deals to be found, including $4.6 billion in funding sought by the Trump administration for the declared emergency at the southern border that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee this week. 

We can only hope that this spirit of finding support to fix issues that both parties agree on will continue and spread.

Finding help: A group in York County, Sparrow Place, is working to help female victims of sex trafficking return to society by providing housing, clothing, food and education. For more information about their efforts, go to www.sparrowplace.org.