- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s top narcotics enforcer told members of a legislative panel Wednesday that more drug dealers are becoming involved in the commercial sexual exploitation of young people because human trafficking has become more profitable than drug trafficking in the state.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs Control started monitoring human trafficking activity in the state several years ago, Director Darrell Weaver told members of the House Public Safety Committee. Since then, narcotics investigators have rescued 26 trafficking victims, about 80 percent of whom had been involved in some way in the drug trade, Weaver said.

“If we save one, it will be worth it,” Weaver said.

Weaver was among several speakers who appeared before the panel as it develops recommendations for possible legislation for lawmakers to consider next year. The panel considered human trafficking broadly, including labor trafficking, but most of the discussion focused on how to keep children out of the sex trade.

Among the recommendations were increased training about human trafficking for law enforcement officers, child welfare workers and public education officials and the creation of a special court fee that would be paid by offenders for services for human trafficking victims.

Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, who requested the study, said he plans to review the proposals before legislation is drafted.

Kirsten Havig, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work, said the U.S. has become the top destination for sex tourism in the world and that Oklahoma has become a hub for trafficking because of the presence of major transportation routes, including Interstate Highways 35, 40 and 44.

There is an estimated global annual profit of almost $28 billion for forced commercial sexual exploitation, according to the International Labor Organization.

Sex traffickers typically target vulnerable people with histories of abuse and cajole them into compliance through the use of fraud, deception, force and other forms of coercion, according to The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that focuses on the issue of human trafficking.

Havig said 30 percent of youths housed in shelters and 70 percent of homeless youths are victimized by human traffickers.

“It’s sexual abuse for profit,” Havig said. “We want to make Oklahoma a very unattractive place for traffickers and sex buyers.”

Laura Boyd, a former state representative and executive director of the Oklahoma Therapeutic Foster Care Association, said that in many cases the victims of human trafficking are not known and the crimes committed against them go unreported.

But human trafficking isn’t just a law enforcement problem, Weaver said. More effort needs to be made to help victims recover from the physical and psychological impact of being exploited and help them return to society, he said.

Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law legislation that shields minors from prostitution charges by creating the legal assumption that they were coerced into the work. Fallin also signed a bill that allows sex trafficking victims to ask courts to clear prior prostitution convictions.

Weaver said new laws that go into effect this year will require people convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders and serve 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole.

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Online:

Polaris Project: https://www.polarisproject.org

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