Utah has shown improvement in protecting children against sex trafficking, but it can do better, according to an international organization that has offered several detailed recommendations to strengthen the state’s posture in prosecuting these unconscionable crimes.
Several changes to Utah law proposed by Shared Hope International are the product of a thorough and reasoned analysis and are worthy of consideration by the Utah Legislature. High among them is a recommendation to elevate possible prison sentences under state law to levels closer to those outlined under federal law, which are generally more severe.
Shared Hope delivers an annual grade to states based on efforts to fight back against a wave of trafficking that has victimized millions of children worldwide. Utah received a C this year after receiving poor and failing grades in previous years. Improvement was noted in efforts to step up investigation and prosecution. But the organization says the state could do better at protecting victims of such crimes, providing them follow-up services and “de-criminalizing” their status under the law.
“Utah lacks a protective response to minor victims that treats them as victims and not as criminals,” said Christine Raino, policy counsel with the non-profit organization.
A protective response would involve a formal mechanism to specifically assist children who become victims of organized sex crimes with treatment and housing options not currently offered as a matter of course by the state’s judicial or social services systems.
Shared Hope also analyzed Utah’s statutory approach to such crimes, and made several detailed recommendations that would make it easier for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute trafficking operations, and would significantly elevate penalties upon conviction.
Specifically, the organization suggests a statute that would make it a distinct crime to use the Internet to commit or attempt to commit trafficking offenses. It also proposes a law that would allow authorities to seize property from convicted traffickers as part of a criminal sentence. Other amendments proposed by the organization would allow for the termination of parental rights for those who knowingly allow their children to be victimized. Other recommendations include allowing police to use decoy operations while investigating trafficking, and to provide formal training and resources to local law enforcement.
The most persuasive of these recommendations arise from the fact that sentencing guidelines in Utah offer penalties less severe than those under federal law for similar crimes. For example, a person convicted in Utah of producing child pornography, or possessing it with the intent to distribute, may be sentenced from 1 to 15 years in prison. Under federal law, if the victim is under 14 years old, a perpetrator could be sentenced to a term of 15 years to life in prison.
Trafficking is another word for slavery, and the fact that it exists in the 21st century should generate outrage in all quarters of the state and nation. When it involves children, the practice of slavery is even a larger cause for action.
The recommendations are included in a 57-page legal analysis of Utah’s approach to child sex trafficking. Given the severity and prevalence of the problem, the Shared Hope International document deserves a place on the desk of every lawmaker when the Utah Legislature convenes in January.