Human trafficking happens in Idaho. But it's unclear how big the problem is. So Sara Thomas is trying to find out.
She's the state Appellate Public Defender and a member of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Commission. Thomas says it’s tough to put numbers to human trafficking because most of the crimes are reported as something else.
“What happens is, they’re charged as sex crimes or they’re charged as violent crimes but they’re not necessarily labeled as human trafficking,” says Thomas.
“So it’s hard to get an exact number or good data on that. But we are getting reports from different police officers that are starting to identify that. We’re getting reports from all over the state, not just in one particular county or one particular area. It’s a growing problem. We’re seeing it Idaho Falls were a couple of girls were taken and they were on a bus on their way to Los Angeles when they were intercepted, where they were going to be sold. We’re seeing it in Coeur d’Alene where people are purchasing women, girls underage, at hotel rooms as they’re brought through town. We see it here in Boise with people recruiting at the Boise Towne Square Mall where they’re trying to get girls into the sex trade.”
Q. How do you define human trafficking?
A. The way we defined (it) was that it (human trafficking) was either labor or services using force or fraud, if we’re talking about an adult. If we’re talking about a child, it’s simply any commercial sex exchange for anyone that’s a minor.
Q. You’re getting these reports from law enforcement and other agencies and you’re bringing them together to figure out how big the problem is?
A. Exactly. We’ve contacted everyone from people who work in the federal system, local police chiefs, different sheriff’s around Idaho, to find out what they know about what’s going on in their agency or in their area.
Q. How are gangs involved in human trafficking?
A. We’re starting to see now that gangs are recruiting girls in, promising them membership in the gang, if they will “sex in” to the gang. Some of these girls are taken on a circuit from California, through Oregon, through Washington, back down through Idaho and Nevada. What happens is that they have a throw-away cell phone that they use. They post a number on a website and they offer these girls for sale. They come into town for a day or two and the Johns come into the hotel. After a couple of days they just move on and they run these girls through a circuit through five different states.
Q. How does Idaho compare with its Northwest neighbors; Oregon and Washington?
A. I think that with larger cities, when you’re talking about Portland and Seattle, they have a larger sex trade in general than any of the towns or cities in Idaho. So it’s not as bad, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a growing and continuing problem.
Q. How can you fight human trafficking in Idaho?
A. One of the things we’re trying to do this year is to get some legislation passed that makes sure that if someone were to purchase a minor, anyone under the age of 18 for sexual purposes, that would be a felony. Right now, there are instances where it’s simply a misdemeanor. It may not even be a crime at all if the girls are being paid with something other than cash.
For example, when we see them trading sex for a place to stay or something to eat, that’s actually, depending on the age of the girl and the man involved, it may not even be a crime here in Idaho. We want to stop that and make sure this is a felony and make sure these people have to register as sex offenders.
One of the other things that we want to do this year is pass a law that says if you’re profiting from this, if you’re profiting from selling a woman or a child, what you end up with is profits. We want to take that away from you. We want to make it not profitable. We want you to forfeit that. Or if you’re using a car to go out and sell a woman or a child, we want to take that car away from you, so we want to take the profits and the benefits away from the pimps.
Sara Thomas plans to introduce the proposed legislation today in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee.
Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio