Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is expected to introduce a bill Tuesday designed to impose heavy penalties on anyone who obstructs human trafficking investigations.
“Human trafficking is a growing problem not just in Alabama, but around the country,” Ward said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “Particularly human trafficking in young kids, which is often for the purpose of sexual abuse.”
Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern day slavery “involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion,” according to Polaris, a non-profit that tracks human trafficking.
The average age of victims’ entry into sex trafficking is between 11-14 years old, according to the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.
Ward said that under current Alabama law, active engagement in human trafficking is a Class A felony, but penalties are much less strict for those who may not be directly involved in trafficking — but who know about trafficking activity and obstruct law enforcement from investigating.
In Alabama, Ward said such obstruction is currently classified as a Class C felony, which is punishable by a minimum amount of time in prison.
Ward said his proposed legislation would change that and provide a stronger deterrent to anyone engaged with or associated with the crime.
“Oftentimes, those who are obstructing justice in these human trafficking cases are just as guilty as those who are actually participating in it,” Ward said. “In the new law, to know about it and intentionally obstruct the prosecution of these cases, then you’re treated the same as the person who was directly involved in the trafficking.”
Human trafficking statistics are “sparse and almost non-existent” because of the underground nature of the crime and because human trafficking cases are sometimes mistaken for other crimes such as assault, said Patricia McCay, secretary of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.
Cases have been reported in Montgomery County, Birmingham, Fort Payne, Madison County, Huntsville, Albertville, Guntersville, Dothan and Mobile, according to the task force’s EnditAlabama.org fact sheet.
Experts estimate human trafficking is a $150 billion per year industry and that activity is particularly rampant along the I-65 and I-20 corridors because of their connections to major ports and cities.
Though not a comprehensive measurement tool, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that they received 111 calls that referenced Alabama in 2017 and that 36 human trafficking cases were reported to them in connection to the state.
Ward is chairman of the judiciary committee and said he plans to have the bill reviewed by his committee on Wednesday. He expects it to sail through without opposition.
“You’d be hard pressed to be against this,” he said. “It’s a big profit maker for those engaged in it and it’s a real sad story. This is something we should always make a priority to crack down on.”
State Representative Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City) will sponsor a similar bill in the House, Ward said.
Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.