Super Bowl Prompts Indiana to Rewrite Human Trafficking Law

 
graphic showing the Super Bowl's impact on human trafficking

In the early morning hours of Super Bowl Sunday last year, Dallas police arrested Anthony Ladell Winn. They suspected Winn of forcing two sisters, ages 14 and 20, to travel from Austin to Dallas to work as prostitutes while thousands of football fans gathered for the big game. "There was big money to be made during the Super Bowl," Winn said according to police documents obtained by the Dallas Morning News .

Winn was charged with "attempting to compel prostitution" and "trafficking of persons." While Winn has yet to stand trial, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and human rights advocates see his case as an example of an ugly byproduct of hosting the Super Bowl and all of the pre-game parties that go along with it. In the past few years, host cities have reported an influx of sex trafficking activity, and have launched task forces to rescue both children and adults from coerced prostitution.

For Super Bowl XLVI, to be played this Sunday (February 5) in Indianapolis, state officials are going out of their way to show that human trafficking won't be tolerated. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels specifically called on lawmakers in his state of the state address to tighten the state's law on human trafficking before the Super Bowl.

"We should — no, we must — strengthen our laws against the horrid practice of human trafficking," Daniels said . "And we must do it in time for the Super Bowl, the kind of event at which the exploitation of young women is rampant in the absence of such a tough law." Daniels got what he wanted. An anti-trafficking bill unanimously passed both the Senate and the House last week and the governor quickly signed it.

A year-round problem

Human trafficking is a problem for more than just Super Bowl host cities, of course. Attention to the issue of forced prostitution has been growing in statehouses since 2003, when Washington became the first state to pass a law specifically criminalizing the practice. Every state except West Virginia and Wyoming has some legislation against human trafficking, although the states vary in how tough their laws are, according to the Polaris Project, a national advocacy group working to combat all forms of human trafficking. At the federal level, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has been in place since 2000 and is designed to both prosecute traffickers and protect their victims from criminal charges. 

Human trafficking refers to buying, selling, and smuggling people, both adults and children, and forcing them into sexual slavery or other types of indentured servitude. Victims come both from the United States and from around the world, and are often lured away from their homes by the promise of a better life. According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 100,000 American children are victims of commercial sex trafficking and prostitution each year.

Lawmakers in 20 states are currently debating bills related to stopping human trafficking. West Virginia is working on creating its first anti-trafficking statute , while the other states are refining existing laws surrounding prostitution, in many cases moving the criminal burden away from those forced into the commercial sex trade and placing it with the traffickers. Legislators are also working to provide resources to fight trafficking by appropriating additional funding for victim's services, increasing criminal penalties for traffickers, and giving police authority to use wiretaps or to subpoena internet service providers to investigate potential child sexual exploitation.

In Indiana's case, there was an existing law on the books before preparations for the Super Bowl began. Under the previous law, traffickers who forced adults into sex work or forced labor could be prosecuted, but when it came to child victims, the law only allowed prosecution when the trafficker was the parent, guardian, or custodian of the child forced into prostitution or labor. Indiana's human trafficking provisions earned a ranking of "6" on a scale of 0 to 10 in a 50-state analysis conducted by the Polaris Project.

The state's new law broadens prosecution authority to include anyone over 18 who knowingly or intentionally sells or transfers custody of a child under 16 for prostitution or forced labor. It also raises the penalty for trafficking from a class-B to class-A felony, punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison. "Though it is an honor for Indiana to host the Super Bowl, many sincere voices have brought to light the fact that human trafficking is a shameful practice we can't ignore," Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement. "With the Governor's signature, law enforcement and prosecutors will have a new legal tool to combat this problem."

This week, both local and national nonprofits and religious groups have been working to see that the new law gets enforced. They have been training Indianapolis cab drivers, hotel employees and other service personnel to recognize signs of trafficking, such as a provocatively dressed girl who avoids eye contact and might be traveling with an older man, or a girl who checks into a hotel but has no suitcase. Volunteers have also handed out thousands of bars of soap to area hotels and nightclubs with a trafficking hotline number on the wrapper and instructions on how to either report a trafficking incident or call to get help. Press conferences and public service announcements will continue airing locally though Sunday's game.

Overstating the numbers?

Despite the reports from public officials and police, not everybody is convinced that human trafficking at the Super Bowl is as large a problem as advertised. Research from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, an international advocacy group made up of non-governmental organizations from around the world, noted that in the run up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 2010 Olympics in Canada, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and the previous three Super Bowls, claims that tens of thousands of prostitutes would pour into these areas never materialized. While trafficking may have occurred at these events, the Alliance says, the incidence wasn't any greater than usual.

Others say there is evidence that trafficking does pick up around the Super Bowl, if not at the extreme levels some have predicted. During the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami, police and volunteers recovered six children from circumstances of potential sexual exploitation. Fred Quinton Collins, a resident of Hawaii, was arrested and subsequently found guilty of trafficking adults and children to the Miami area for prostitution during the Super Bowl. He was sentenced to 260 months in prison. Trudy Novicki, the executive director of Kristi House, a Miami agency that works with victims of child sexual abuse, says that over the Super Bowl weekend in 2010, the number of local ads for escorts on the internet tripled.

Determined to make sure that Texas didn't see the same "horrors of what happened at the 2010 Super Bowl," Texas state Senator Leticia Van de Putte filed a bill to toughen state law around human trafficking before the 2011 game. While the bill didn't pass until last April, the state beefed up the undercover operations of a trafficking task force made up of 16 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Some 133 arrests were made in the 12 days before the game, according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Irving, Texas. One case involved an international Chinese trafficking ring, and three cases involved sex trafficking of minors. "It's kind of sad," Van de Putte says, "to think that something as uplifting as sports has a seedier side."

Still, the outcome didn't prove out some of the more sweeping claims made before the Super Bowl. Ahead of last year's game, Dallas Police Sgt. Louis Fellini warned that between 50,000 to 100,000 prostitutes would come to Dallas for the Super Bowl. At the high end of that estimate, there would be about one prostitute for every fan who attended the game: Total attendance was about 103,000.

Whether or not human trafficking increases as a problem in Indianapolis this weekend, many people who study the issue think Indiana took a step in the right direction with its new law. Bridgette Carr, the director of the University of Michigan human trafficking law clinic, which recently created a database of trafficking cases, says that before any policies or legislation can make a difference, communities have to have a fundamental understanding that trafficking is happening.

"We've found that it really doesn't matter if you're talking about a large urban center or a small rural community, you see the same types of cases," says Carr. "I hope that having the Super Bowl is going to make people talk about human trafficking and that it happens every day, not just during the Super Bowl."  

 
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