- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - The state Senate unanimously approved a bill on Tuesday that toughens penalties for criminals engaged in human trafficking and provides greater protection for victims.

The bill, like similar legislation being considered in several other states, is aimed at penalizing traffickers who force people, mostly women and children, into labor or sexual servitude, while offering help for victims.

The legislation, which now goes to the House, also makes it a felony to patronize a person for commercial sex with the knowledge that he or she is a victim of sexual servitude.

While cracking down on traffickers and their customers, the bill also allows victims to sue traffickers and to seek pardons and dismissal of convictions for sex crimes that result from being a trafficking victim.

“It is a hideous crime… It is modern-day slavery,” said Senate President Pro Tem Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, chief Senate sponsor of the legislation. “… It is not just something you see in movies.”

The bill also calls for the creation of a public awareness campaign and a state human trafficking coordinating council.

The legislation was drafted with the help of the Delaware attorney general’s office and the Uniform Law Commission, a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan group that writes model legislation for states to help standardize laws around the nation.

Michael Houghton, a Wilmington lawyer who is one of Delaware’s representatives on the ULC, said human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.

Under the legislation, human trafficking, forced labor and sexual servitude are felonies that are punishable by up to 15 years in prison but which does not require mandatory prison time. The penalty is increased if the victim is a minor, with even higher penalties for aggravating circumstances, when a victim is recruited or obtained from a shelter designed to help children, the homeless, or victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault.

Senators defeated an amendment by Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, that increased the felony classifications to ensure that anyone convicted of trafficking is sentenced to mandatory prison time.

“They are vicious and they don’t care who they prey on…. If they’re back out on the street, they’re not going to stop what they’re doing,” Lawson said.

But Abigail Layton, head of the child predator unit within the attorney general’s office, noted that the legislation calls for a two-year minimum sentence if a minor is involved, with a possible minimum sentence of 15 years in prison if other aggravating circumstances are present.

“I believe we will be able to respond appropriately … to the nature of the crime,” she said.

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