Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said the complexities of human trafficking cases have forced local and state officials to turn to federal prosecutors, who have prosecuted 28 cases during the last decade.
He and Deirdre Daly, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said the state should amend its statutes to mirror federal law, re-implement a grand jury system, and provide more resources to police investigating trafficking.
“If the legislature really wants these laws enforced, they need to stand up and say ‘OK, we’ll help,’” Kane said during a forum on the issue Thursday hosted by the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Jillian Gilchrest, a senior policy analyst for the commission, said purpose of panel, which met at the Legislative Office Building, was to figure out why the state has yet to prosecute anyone under a human trafficking law that the General Assembly adopted in 2006.
The group of public and law enforcement officials and nonprofit leaders said the lack of prosecutions is the result of many issues, including, at times, poor communication among groups trying to address the issue.
Joette Katz, the commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, said her department identified 133 child victims of human trafficking last year and determined that 98 percent had had some level of interaction with the department before they were victimized.
“That’s shameful, and that’s something that we take, not just seriously but personally,” she said.
Speakers also raised concern that some officials in a position to help aren’t willing to acknowledge that human trafficking is a problem.
The conversation regularly came back to the differences between state and federal enforcement mechanisms, however.
Gilchrest said the state needs to address the disparity in convictions because the 28 federal prosecutions show that federal authorities can’t handle all of Connecticut’s cases.
“We as a state need to start prosecuting traffickers, we need to start prosecuting the demand side, and really saying that Connecticut doesn’t stand for trafficking,” she said.
Connecticut law weak
Kane said Connecticut’s law requires police to prove someone enticed or coerced another person into having sex for money on two occasions.
Daly said the federal system requires evidence only that a suspect intended to sell someone else for sex on one occasion — and there doesn’t need to be evidence of coercion or enticement.
Kane said the difference means defendants in Connecticut are prosecuted for lesser offenses, such as prostitution or promoting or soliciting prostitution.
Many speakers said those affected by human trafficking, often children who can be as young as 2, frequently fail to realize they are victims because they receive money, food, shelter, and other compensation from perpetrators.
This makes them feel that they are willing participants, the speakers said.
“At no time have I had a victim walk into my office and say, ‘Hello, I’m victim of human trafficking. Please help me,’” said Alicia Kinsman, a lawyer with the International Institute of Connecticut.
Kane said victims are often unwilling to cooperate with investigations, meaning that police need to build cases through other means.
Human traffickers often move quickly, in part to avoid detection, making it difficult to conduct sting operations.
Daly said federal prosecutors can use the grand jury system to obtain financial, phone, Internet, and other records. Connecticut investigators need to do more work in order to obtain warrants to seize the same information.
Daly said Internet records can be especially important because so many perpetrators use websites like Backpage to promote their prostitutes.
More focus on johns sought
Speakers also talked about the need to change the focus of law enforcement to target johns, not prostitutes. Gilchrest said the state has prosecuted 287 prostitutes over the last two years, but only 53 customers.
Some said human trafficking victims lose trust in investigators if they are arrested, while others said targeting clients will reduce the demand for sex workers.
Several speakers also praised two proposed bills, both of which have cleared the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, targeting human trafficking.
The bills would, among other things, remove the “mistake of age” defense for prostitution. Currently prosecutors must prove a customer knew a prostitute was a minor before seeking higher penalties for the offense.
The bills, which largely mirror each other in terms of human trafficking, also call for hotel employees to receive increased training to identify trafficking and to keep records for longer periods.
Katz said authorities need to re-examine how they address hotels, adding that she finds it hard to believe employees don’t see suspicious behavior.
“A hotel can tell you how many spoons are missing from the kitchen. They can tell you how many drinks were poured. … But they close their eyes when they see young girls being paraded in and out of lobbies or paying for their hotel rooms with a credit card that you know a 12-year-old shouldn’t have,” she said.
The DCF commissioner also said investigators need to focus on all hotels, not just the “traditional, seedy” ones that many associate with prostitution and human trafficking.