MATT GILLIS, Deseret News
Three Thia workers who were victims of human trafficing (slavery) in Utah, Thursday, July 15, 2010. Matt Gillis, Deseret News

To Americans the term slavery is most frequently associated with the colonial and pre-Civil War institution of buying and selling Africans and their descendants as legal chattels. Although legally condoned slavery was abolished in the 19th century, human bondage has never been fully eradicated.

In its modern form, slavery includes sex trafficking, in which adults or children are forced or deceived into prostitution; forced labor among adults and children; bonded labor, in which traffickers or recruiters exploit an initial debt assumed as terms of employment and involuntary domestic servitude. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates 150,000 people in the U.S. live in modern-day slavery. Some advocacy groups suggest that twice as many individuals may be ensnared domestically.

Increasingly, poignant accounts of how brutal force, fraud and coercion are used to keep vulnerable individuals in modern-day slavery are emerging in the media. Criminal networks that have profited in the past from illegal trafficking in narcotics have discovered newfound profits in literally selling human beings. And unscrupulous online services have become the primary platform for promoting this vile trade, providing a front in particular for commercial sex services that depend upon coerced and defrauded "workers."

Earlier this week, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna, in his capacity as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, called upon his colleagues across the country to take more aggressive action and to promote state legislation that will help stop the exploitation of vulnerable minors through online services.

He further called upon Congress to carefully review section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision intended to protect Internet service providers from tort liability for materials posted by third parties. McKenna contends this provision is being used to provide license to unscrupulous Internet services to profit from prostitution and human trafficking.

The problem of modern slavery is real, and the criminal justice system must respond. It can do so through appropriate legislation. But it can also do more within existing laws to recognize the scope and scale of the problem, and devote training and resources to effectively help the vulnerable individuals caught in this vicious underworld. Too often, frightening instances of young people being kidnapped into slavery have been misidentified as runaway situations. Too often, the victims of trafficking, because of their involuntary proximity to attendant criminal activity, end up treated as perpetrators instead of receiving the protection and care they need as victims.

The unfathomable suffering inflicted by this hidden scourge affects every major metropolitan area, including our own. In our opinion, communities need to be better informed of these issues so they can identify potential concerns, protect their own and take action to promote increased prosecution of traffickers and better care for victims. We appreciate the leadership of Attorney General McKenna in raising the consciousness of law enforcement across the country and in promoting enforcement and legislation to help eradicate this wickedness.