Collaborative Effort Urges West Virginia to become the 49th State to Criminalize Human Trafficking
In the summer of 2011, Polaris Project’s Policy Team reflected on a year of great accomplishment after helping pass 17 new anti-human trafficking laws across the country, including criminalizing human trafficking offenses for the first time in Hawaii, Virginia, and Vermont. Despite these victories, we looked across our State Ratings Map with a sense of overwhelming urgency of what the next year would bring. Two states remained that had never criminalized human trafficking – West Virginia and Wyoming – and we were committed to addressing this gap.
We decided to start with West Virginia. For the next seven months, we devoted ourselves to building a coalition of advocates and constructing a legal framework to end human trafficking in that state.
Our efforts focused on three fronts: (1) Legislative Advocacy; (2) Coalition Building and Mobilizing Grassroots Community; and (3) Law Enforcement and Prosecutorial Engagement. We set out in November 2011 to meet with Delegate Bonnie Brown, Delegate Tim Miley (Chair of House Judiciary), and Legislative Counsel. After giving our assessment of the law and receiving a favorable review by the Chair we turned over our initial draft to help inform the legislative counsel’s official draft.
Over the next several months we focused exclusively on building a coalition and gaining the support of prosecutors. We first reached out to Professor Newfield of West Virginia University who in turn put us in touch with Mr. Sam Hickman, the Executive Director of the West Virginia branch of the National Association of Social Workers. I travelled to West Virginia to meet with Mr. Hickman along with several advocates in the community who shared their knowledge about the inner workings of the West Virginia legislature. We then joined forces with the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, several other law professors, the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, and additional members of the Sexual Assault Coalition. On the law enforcement side, the Sexual Assault Coalition worked closely with law enforcement from Morgantown and we reached out to Paul Sheridan, head of the Civil Rights Division in the Attorney General’s Office, for their support as well. Working with our partner organization, International Justice Mission (IJM), we began mobilizing grassroots efforts by getting supporters more engaged in the legislative process.
Over the next 60 days Polaris Project and IJM worked in concert with the dozen or so individuals and organizations that had dedicated themselves to this cause. We testified several times before the House Judiciary Committee, educating members on the crime of human trafficking and what effective legislation should look like. We worked closely with the subcommittee and legislative counsel to develop a strong human trafficking bill for West Virginia. We met with individual members on the House Judiciary and Finance Committees, as well as leadership on both the House and Senate sides to encourage support for the measure when it came up for a vote. The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence also hosted a lobby day to show public support for the bill.
On the last day of session, Saturday, March 10th an 11th hour deal was struck. Under the new bill labor and sex trafficking would be criminalized, there would be no requirement of proving force, threat, or deception for minors induced to engage in commercial sex, and training for law enforcement officers on human trafficking investigations was authorized. The bill is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature. You can still add your voice to the fight by signing our petition on change.org and ensuring that human trafficking is finally made a crime in West Virginia.
We are thrilled that West Virginia is joining the fight against modern-day slavery after the guidance, determination, and tenacity of a strong and effective coalition. While we all approached the issue from different angles, for 60 days we spoke as one voice with a message of hope that a new law would one day finally protect victims and, ultimately, stop the criminals who profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people.