OKLA. CITY —
A 15-year-old girl was working as a prostitute in Tulsa in September when she was arrested during a prostitution sting operation.
She had become a prostitute at a younger age because she saw the practice as a way to get money and attention from men, a state law-enforcement official said.
The girl, who was taken to a Tulsa shelter, is a victim of a crime — human trafficking — that the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, legislators and others are trying to crack down on further.
This legislative session, lawmakers have introduced about a dozen bills that were drafted by the Bureau of Narcotics. Among other things, they would raise the statute of limitations, increase prison time for human trafficking and require those convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt also has formed a working group to share intelligence on human trafficking. The group, composed of officials from various state, local and federal criminal-justice agencies, met for the first time on Thursday.
Human trafficking is a broad term that covers a range of activities, but generally involves use of force, fraud or oppression to keep someone in a labor or service situation. Examples are minors being forced into prostitution and adults who are forced to work off a debt in a massage parlor. Trafficking doesn’t refer necessarily to transporting of victims, but to exploiting them criminally for personal gain.
Bills introduced by Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, and Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, would establish a 12-year statute of limitations for human trafficking.
Bills offered by Crain, Newberry and Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, would require human traffickers to serve 85 percent of their prison sentences. Bills from Newberry, Crain and Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, would mandate the sex-offender registration.
“We’ve got to be careful in Oklahoma … of anything we make an 85 percent crime because of our incarceration rates,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Bureau of Narcotics. “But I think with human trafficking, if you’ve got someone who’s convicted of trafficking, then I think that person needs to be on that list.”
Other bills supported by the bureau would change the term child to minor and make the crime of child prostitution applicable to anyone under age 18, instead of 16.
Oklahoma’s problem with human trafficking stems partly from its location at the crossing of several major interstates, but how often the crime occurs is hard to quantify, Weaver said.
There is little or no data on human trafficking because it’s not a crime easily tracked and is severely underreported because victims fear retaliation, Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward said.
The bureau is trying to attack human trafficking before it worsens in Oklahoma and has looked toward Nevada, especially Las Vegas, for models of legislation and operations.
“Most of these laws are mirrored after what Las Vegas has learned after years of experience,” Woodward said. While the problem in Oklahoma is less extreme, “if our laws are not prepared to deal with it, then we’re really wasting our time and doing a disservice to the victims.”
The Bureau of Narcotics has conducted about six sting operations and transferred from eight to 10 victims to shelters since the creation of its human trafficking unit in late 2012, Woodward said.
The Polaris Project, which advocates against trafficking across the world, said it has identified about 12,000 human-trafficking victims in the United States. Polaris credits Oklahoma as one of 32 states that have passed significant laws to combat trafficking.
From January to June last year, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center recorded 155 Oklahoma callers to its human trafficking hotline. Of those, 28 were determined to be actual cases of human trafficking.
Jason Weis is the president and founder of The Demand Project in Tulsa, which transfers victims to shelters and helps them escape lives of trafficking.
The organization also suggests legislation to agencies and lawmakers.
“If you are convicted of human trafficking, you shouldn’t get out with a slap on the wrist,” Weis said. “If you’re going to get a good, strong penalty, than you should be in jail for 85 percent of the time you’ve been convicted for.” The goal is to “really send a message to these networks of buyers and sellers that Oklahoma is not going to put up with this type of activity.”
Two other legislators have introduced shell bills without specific language that may be used to toughen human trafficking laws.
The two bills create the Human Trafficking Act of 2014, which Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, said will expunge the records of trafficking victims because many are forced into criminal lifestyles while being exploited. It comes on the heels of a House bill approved last year that expunges prostitution records for human-trafficking victims.
“When you get a kid that’s exposed to trafficking from age 13 to 18, if they can get out of that and get their records expunged, they still have an opportunity to go to college and make a better life for themselves,” Pittman said.
OKLAHOMA WATCH is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism group that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.