Governor Roy Cooper declared January Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month Wednesday as state officials came together to discuss the issue and North Carolina’s efforts at combatting it.
“Combating human trafficking requires all branches and all levels of government to work together in partnership,” said North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Beasley, who spoke at a morning press conference at the North Carolina State Bar in downtown Raleigh Tuesday.
“In Cumberland County, judicial officials and law enforcement have come together to start a new innovative court program called WORTH to help get services to survivors when they do find themselves in court,” Beasley said. “And, while we work to provide greater services to victims and move them out of environments where they are being exploited, our dedicated district attorneys are also working hard to get traffickers off the street.”
North Carolina is consistently ranked in the top 10 states with he most reported human trafficking cases. Last year, there were 713 charges of human trafficking and other offenses of a similar nature across the state, according to the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein pointed out that North Carolina is geographically appealing to sex traffickers — positioned as a good mid-point between Miami and New York, with plenty of highway access.
“We’re right in the middle, Interstates come right through us,” Stein said. “Human trafficking has that terminology because the victims really are moved. There’s a tool we’ve educated law enforcement to use called [Thorn Spotlight] where you can actually trace a victim as he or she — usually it’s a she — is moved down I-95 from New York, New Jersey, Virginia through North Carolina on their way to Atlanta or Miami.”
“The Interstates play a role and frankly the large number of military installations play a role,” Stein said.
But as Beasley and Stein emphasized Tuesday, the state has made a lot of progress in the last decade.
In 2011 Shared Hope International gave North Carolina a 61 (or D) rating for its efforts to combat human trafficking. Last year the organization gave the state a 94 (or A) rating.
A lot of that progress is due to educational efforts, Beasley said.
Since 2017 the state has required certain businesses, hospitals, public transportation facilities and employment offices to post a human trafficking public awareness sign. Mandatory hotline posting legislation has led to signs in more than 20,000 locations across the state. In 2018 and 2019 $1.35 million in grant funding for combatting human trafficking was distributed in North Carolina.
Last year a new state law (S.L. 2019-245) mandated school personnel in kindergarten through twelfth grade receive training on child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
Education and change has also been necessary for law enforcement and the judicial system, where too many victims of human trafficking find themselves facing charges.
“We’ve already tried to change the law and educate law enforcement that when they encounter somebody who is engaged in criminal behavior, in terms of violating a statute, but they’re doing it because of coercion and the fact that they are a victim, to not charge them in the first place,” Stein said.
There are provisions for victims of human trafficking to get convictions for non-violent crimes expunged from their record, Stein said, but Legal Aid and other pro bono legal services are essential in helping those who may find it difficult to afford to navigate that process.
“This is a crime it’s only in the last five to ten years there’s really been a widespread understanding of it,” Stein said. “I think things are absolutely moving in the right direction.”