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Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette: Making Progress Against Human Trafficking

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HTFinal CoverIn 2013, the State of Michigan published its Report on Human Trafficking. In anticipation of the publication of the Acton Institute’s monograph, A Vulnerable World: The High Price of Human Trafficking, I interviewed Attorney General Bill Schuette last month.

Schuette (who served as co-chair for the Commission) explained that he realized upon his election that Michigan had a great deal of work to do in this area. As he prepared to attend the National Conference of Attorneys General, he

became aware that our state of Michigan was behind the curve and that we were low in the rankings of tools and law enforcement and assistance to victims and acknowledgement that this is a problem.

I asked Mr. Schuette this: I ask every teacher I meet, every first responder I meet, every medical personnel I meet, “Have you ever received any training on human trafficking?” And I’ve never had a yes. What do you say about that? He responded:

[U]nfortunately, the past has been that not enough people have been trained to spot, deal with, observe, try to stop human trafficking. And that’s one of the features that I think law enforcement in Michigan will move towards now, and that is having training sessions and training seminars, whether you’re EMS or sheriff patrol or a local police organization, where you learn about human trafficking. That’s an area that we have to improve. I’m not surprised by [your informal survey] because that was one of these glaring issues that came out in our 5 subgroups or working groups that wanted to, in essence, attack in the state of Michigan. That’s one of the proposals that’s high on my agenda.

Another issue that we spoke about was changing laws so that victims of trafficking were treated as victims by law enforcement and the courts, and not as criminals. Mr. Schuette had this to say:

I think that … we basically altered the rotation of the earth’s axis by treating young women, who have been forced to have sex, treating them as victims, not criminals. That was the fundamental culture turn, fundamental alteration, in Michigan. Now the presumption is that they are victims, not criminals. Treating them as victims, not criminals is fundamental, and the fact that you change the Johns from a misdemeanor to a felony and the fact that we’ve enhanced the self‑forfeiture provisions.

It starts legislatively and it means that we’re going to try to work [with] prosecutors and sheriffs and police organizations to have training opportunities on this. This issue of human trafficking is similar to the public awareness and law enforcement awareness and community recognition that took some time to build just like with domestic violence.

Mr. Schuette also spoke about the role of the private sector in the state’s fight against trafficking.

We’re hoping that we can find those who have big hearts and maybe big pocketbooks to help on this whole issue of public awareness … [Another area for community involvement is] shelter houses, the safe havens, there is the Manasseh Project in Grand Rapids, is a great example [for] other communities where you have partnerships of the nonprofit sector working with private individuals, who might have the means or the passion, whether it’s faith-based or otherwise … This is where churches have a big role, whatever denomination. This is a big opportunity for the faith-based community to make sure that [the] mission field goes beyond the pews and it goes out into the streets and the neighborhoods. It’s a huge opportunity for churches, a responsibility, frankly, for churches.

The Detroit News reported that Michigan has now passed 18 new laws focusing on human trafficking. However, there is significant criticism of this new legislation. The foremost issue is funding for shelters and victim services.

Michigan’s efforts are a start, particularly in making the public aware that human trafficking is a real problem, said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

The legislative package “does not, however, make Michigan in the forefront of human trafficking laws,” White said, because it doesn’t provide “the kind of relief that supports victims of trafficking, who must have support services in order to become survivors.”

University of Michigan professor Bridgette Carr, who served on the Commission, is concerned about services for minors.

While the legislation is a “huge step forward,” it doesn’t provide as much protection as federal human trafficking laws for girls younger than 18, said Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

Federal law assumes girls under 18 have been coerced into prostitution, but under Michigan’s new law they still will bear the burden of proving they’re human trafficking victims, she said.

Prosecutors can have them placed on probation, after which further criminal proceedings can be dismissed if they are first-time offenders and comply with court orders. It could include drug treatment or mandatory counseling — for which they must pay reasonable costs.

“It’s impossible to help them if we retain the criminality of it,” Carr said. “We wouldn’t stand for” similar treatment of victims in other types of criminal cases, she said.

Shared Hope International, an NGO committed to fighting trafficking of minors and improving care for survivors, gave Michigan (along with three other states) an “F” grade for its lack of legal protection for minors, its lack of training for law enforcement and court officers, and the lack of harsh penalties for those who traffic minors.

A Vulnerable World: The High Price of Human Trafficking will be published later this month by the Acton Institute.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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