Aug. 21, 2013 – Sara Lewis sees a dark underground world every day. An assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County’s Sensitive Crimes Unit, Lewis often hears the disturbing details of sex trafficking crimes, including how pimps torture and beat victims into submission.
Sex trafficking is a major aspect of “human trafficking,” which generally involves recruiting, enticing, harboring, obtaining or transporting a person to perform labor, services, or commercial sex acts through coercion, force, or fraud.
Lewis says most cases she sees involve sex trafficking, and most involve vulnerable women or minor girls who get lured in with false promises from lying pimps (aka sex traffickers).
Traffickers troll for “recruits” near high schools and malls, make promises of money, security, and travel with false Internet or “back page” advertisements. Sometimes, even the promise of a meal can lure a troubled teen with nowhere else to go, Lewis says.
“These men seem to have a sixth sense for seeking out victims that are in vulnerable situations,” Lewis said. “This is organized crime that has wide-reaching implications on the community beyond the abuse inflicted on children and young adults.”
Lewis was the first county prosecutor to secure a human trafficking conviction under state law, and she is also the first proposing changes to toughen Wisconsin’s law.
With support from Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, Lewis and other prosecutors have asked lawmakers to amend the state’s human and child trafficking statutes – Wis. Stat. sections 940.302 and 948.051 – originally enacted in 2008.
Modifications to Trafficking Law Proposed
In a letter to lawmakers, Lewis said changes are essential “in the fight against the insidious and rather widespread problem of human trafficking, specifically domestic sex trafficking of children and young adults here in the state of Wisconsin.”
The proposals toughen penalties for human trafficking convictions – including mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes against children. They also create consistency with federal human trafficking laws, originally passed in 2000.
Wisconsin passed its anti-trafficking laws in 2008 to combat an identifiable problem, but a recent report says Wisconsin trafficking laws are not as strong as other states' laws.
Washington D.C.-based Polaris Project, an organization that provides resources to fight human trafficking, last week released its “2013 State Ratings on Human Trafficking Laws,” putting Wisconsin in the second tier along with Iowa, Michigan, and eight other states.
Neighbors Illinois and Minnesota are among 32 first-tier states that meet most of the 10 categories for effectively combatting human trafficking, according to Polaris standards.
Lewis’s proposal would certainly give Wisconsin’s trafficking laws more teeth. It would create a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for child sex traffickers who use force, fraud, or coercion. Currently, there is no mandatory minimum in such cases.
People who traffick children to perform commercial sex acts can be guilty regardless of whether they used force, fraud, or coercion. The proposal adds another penalty layer.
Child sex traffickers would also face a 60-year maximum prison term, instead of the current 40 years; adult traffickers would face 40 years instead of the current 25 years.
In addition, the proposal would eliminate the prosecutor’s burden to prove an adult victim did not “consent” to being trafficked, consistent with federal law.
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
“Trafficking” in Wisconsin – aside from child sex trafficking – means recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining (or attempting to do these things) an individual without consent of the individual and done with force, fraud or coercion.
In her letter to lawmakers, Lewis said the consent issue is “the single most problematic and limiting aspect of the statute as it currently stands.” That’s because victims often acquiesce to join the trafficker based on lies, and stay based on threats and abuse.
“The consent issue is an extra element that makes it difficult for a jury to grapple with,” Lewis said. “How do you consent to being defrauded? Consent shouldn’t matter, because these cases often involve victims who are lied to and stripped of their free will.”
Prosecutors Face an Uphill Battle
Prosecuting human trafficking crimes can be difficult because the victims may not want to come forward and identify themselves as victims, says Karie Cattanach, a state assistant attorney general in criminal litigation who works on trafficking cases. State prosecutors provide support to county prosecutors.
For instance, a victim of sex trafficking who is charged with prostitution could assert that his or her criminal acts were compelled by force, fraud, or coercion. But that would require outing an at-large pimp (aka sex trafficker) who has threatened retaliation.
“Individuals who have not been identified as sex trafficking victims may be hesitant to raise that defense out of fear of their trafficker,” Cattanach said.
Just recently, a grand jury indicted Kyle Collins of Milwaukee on charges of retaliation against a sex trafficking victim who testified against Tyrone McMillian, a pimp who operated in Milwaukee and was later convicted on federal sex trafficking charges.
Allegedly, Collins is McMillian’s associate and located the victim at a club, dragged her to his car and threatened to kill her for testifying before she was able to escape.
Lewis recalls details of cases in which pimps torture or beat their “girls” in front of other girls to instill fear, show them what happens if they disobey orders or betray them.
“In one case, the pimp used a flat iron to severely scar the victim,” Lewis said. “Or he would beat her with two-by-fours. These people do scary things.”
For the same reasons, prosecuting human trafficking crimes is difficult, Cattanach says, because the victims may not want to come forward to escape.
Aside from a fear of their keepers, they could fear prosecution against themselves, or shame and ridicule if details go public. In addition, the vulnerable victims may feel love or devotion to the ones exploiting them, much like victims of domestic violence.
As one solution, the Polaris report suggests safe harbor or immunity provisions to shield victims from prosecution. Lewis has not proposed such measures, but notes that victims would not generally be charged when identified as victims of sex trafficking.
“If there’s a victim who is not engaged in facilitating other crimes, I would not charge them with prostitution,” said Lewis. “They would have to be legitimately culpable of a crime, and not merely a victim.
"Sometimes trusted prostitutes can be co-actors in these cases. When there's a gray area, we just have to balance victimization with culpability.”
Other difficulties exist for prosecutions.
In defense, a suspected trafficker may argue that an adult trafficking victim consented to the criminal acts, because Wisconsin law requires the crime to be perpetrated “without consent.” This is the problem Lewis wants changed, but prosecutors have other obstacles too.
“Even if you have a victim that self identifies as a victim, that doesn’t mean they will show up for trial,” Cattanach said. “Or victims lie based on fear. These factors can make it difficult to prove the elements of human trafficking in a case before a jury.”
Cattanach says prosecutors more frequently obtain convictions on peripheral charges, such as solicitation of a child or sexual assault, but not a human trafficking charge.
Lewis says human trafficking cases “have many tentacles.” It’s not uncommon for weapons or drug charges to accompany trafficking-related crimes, she says.
Trafficking is a Global Issue, Close to Home
Globally, there were 4,746 trafficking convictions and 46,570 identified trafficking victims in FY 2012, but an estimated 27 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report.
In the U.S., federal agencies last year conducted almost 2,500 human trafficking investigations, and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated trafficking prosecutions against 200 suspects, securing 138 convictions. Most (105) involved sex trafficking.
In recent years, federal prosecutors have won a handful of high-profile convictions against notorious pimps who have trafficked victims through Wisconsin.
Local, state, and federal prosecutors collaborate on federal trafficking investigations, including the recent FBI trafficking sting targeting Milwaukee and 75 other U.S. cities.
Authorities rescued 105 juvenile prostitution victims, 10 in Milwaukee, and law enforcement arrested 152 pimps nationwide who could face sex trafficking and other charges.
Lewis says Milwaukee is a major “procurement” city, meaning sex traffickers do heavy recruiting there, then traffick recruits to “destination” cities like Chicago. But there’s plenty of “customers” in Milwaukee too, so-called “Johns” that fuel the fire, she says.
“There is pretty firm evidence that Milwaukee has a fairly significant trafficking problem,” said Lewis, noting that the Sensitive Crimes Unit has a handful of cases pending. The Unit has secured trafficking convictions in at least four trials, three by Lewis, who also obtained a trafficking conviction through a plea deal.
But trafficking is not limited to big cities, says Cattanach. “It’s not just the major metropolitan areas,” she said. “Multiple Wisconsin counties are seeing it.”
Lewis says stronger laws could help prosecutors take traffickers off the streets statewide, and protect vulnerable victims from sex trafficking and other abuse.
“I suspect a lot of it has to do with issues of significant poverty and disadvantage in certain areas,” Lewis said. “That makes those victims ripe for the picking.”
As Lewis and Milwaukee prosecutors proceed on legislative efforts to strengthen Wisconsin’s human trafficking laws, Cattanach says Wisconsin’s citizens can do more now by simply “opening their eyes,” recognizing the problem, and being proactive.
“Increased awareness can help deter what is going on,” she said. “People sometimes turn a blind eye; they don’t want to get involved. But asking questions and reporting something that looks off can help law enforcement identify traffickers and victims.”
The Wisconsin Department of Justice maintains a human trafficking webpage with resources for victims and contact numbers to report potential crimes.