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West Virginia Senate passes human trafficking measure


The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — The Senate passed a bill that calls for stricter penalties for human trafficking-related offenses occurring in West Virginia and would exempt victims of these offenses from prosecution.

All 33 members present voted to pass House Bill 2318, which creates felony offenses and penalties for using a person in forced labor, debt bondage and commercial sexual activity. It also creates a felony for patronizing a person to engage in commercial sexual activity. Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, was the lead sponsor of the bill, first introduced in the House.

Under the bill, if a person is convicted of human trafficking, they would be guilty of a felony and could face a three- to 15-year prison sentence and a $200,000 fine.

The bill makes a more serious offense if a minor is involved — five to 20 years in prison and up to a $300,000 fine.

The bill would also give immunity from prosecution for minor victims who might otherwise be prosecuted under current law for prostitution. Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the bill also would expunge convictions for these victims if there is a finding that the person was a victim of human trafficking.

“It requires no commentary but the horrible things that people do to other people in some places of this world, particularly to children, are enough to shock the conscience of any sentient human being,” Trump said.

“This measure is a good strong measure to say to the nation and world, not in West Virginia. Not here. If it happens here, you will pay a very high price.”

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said this is the first of three bills he hopes the Senate will consider. Others are a sexual assault victims bill of rights, giving rape victims free forensic medical exams and having a crisis counselor to be present for the exam.

Woelfel cited a recent West Virginia University climate survey that said although 90 percent of students said they felt physically safe on campus, almost 20 percent said they have experienced some type of unwanted contact. The survey was sent electronically last spring to 30,470 students on WVU’s Morgantown campus, according to a news release by WVU. There were 5,718 responses or nearly 20 percent of the population with 57 percent of respondents female.

“This bill is a great first step,” he said. “If they do this, they will be incarcerated for a long time. This should be on our radar. Everyone is concerned about money and the budget and rightfully so. But these folks are hurting and we are not treating them well. It’s time to move into the 21st century.”

Greenbrier County Democrat Ronald Miller said although some people may think human trafficking is a problem in other countries, it is a problem in the U.S. as well.

According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. The department said 80 percent of those are women and children.

“We have sex trafficking in this country,” he said. “This bill addresses that problem. …This is an important piece of legislation. It’s important to say we don’t want this and fight to keep it from happening in this state.”

Originally introduced in the House, delegates passed the bill Feb. 22 by a 99-0 vote. As some changes were made, it will be sent back to the House to get delegates’ approval. If members concur with the Senate, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice for his signature.

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