Human Trafficking Laws Could Change Nationwide - FOX 21/27 WFXR Roanoke/WWCW Lynchburg News, Weather

Human Trafficking Laws Could Change Nationwide

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State leaders say putting an end to human trafficking isn't going to happen overnight.

"Crime goes on everywhere and a lot of times small areas are ignored and we focus on the big areas," said Garth Wheeler, the director of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).

Wheeler says human trafficking is happening in big cities and small towns across the commonwealth, many times involving girls and women being moved around and forced to have sex.

"Prostitution is illegal and you arrest prostitutes and you don't see them as victims," said Wheeler, who says many are victims and training is key to tell the difference. "Southwest Virginia, the Roanoke area sometimes feel like they're somewhat neglected when it comes to various issues."

Wheeler says two-thirds of law enforcement agencies in Virginia are small agencies. 

"We need to focus on them because the criminal element that is actually creating this human trafficking, the gangs and all the criminal element, they are focusing on the smaller communities," Wheeler said.

Some people tell us there are things state agencies and state lawmakers need to do in Richmond to end human trafficking, including changing current Virginia law.

The Uniform Law Commission drafted a new act described as a comprehensive new law against human trafficking with the idea of every state adopting it. More than a dozen pages long, the act provides criminal penalties, victim protections, and public awareness and prevention methods.

CLICK HERE FOR THE UCL ACT (PDF)

"The whole point is uniformity between the states so that you don't have traffickers targeting jurisdiction in order to operate their trafficking enterprise," said Virginia Assistant Attorney General Erin Kulpa, who has been working with people across the country to develop the new act.

Right now, Virginia has laws to combat the problem but the words "human trafficking" are not in Virginia laws. Roanoke County officers say without the words "human trafficking" they weren't able to arrest a man they found driving a van with 16 people piled inside.

Wheeler agrees the words "human trafficking" should be added into Virginia law.

If this code is adopted, Kulpa says it would add those words, make punishments more severe, and get resources in place to help victims.

"Right now in Virginia we can get at a lot of the crimes but we have to use our case law theories and accomplice liability, and this more explicitly punishes accomplices separately and then it also creates different sentencing categories," Kulpa said.

It's up to Virginia lawmakers to adopt the Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking. They can pick and choose pieces of the code or re-write it.

The Attorney General's office and DCJS provides training sessions across the state. There was a session in Roanoke earlier this year.

The regional human trafficking task force that launched last week will also provide some training for our area.