The abuse began when “Susan” turned eight; by age 13, she was a runaway with a boyfriend who sold her for food. Three years later, she acquired an “agent” in Miami who shipped her to Baltimore to work for an organized ring that sent women to “the block,” an area known for strip clubs and prostitution.
“Susan” shared her story through written testimony submitted to the Southeastern Republican Caucus hearing hosted by Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks).
The caucus met at the New Hope Eagle Volunteer Fire Company in New Hope to gather input on House Bill 12. Thomas is the prime co-sponsor of the bill, which targets those who patronize victims of human trafficking.
“This legislation would shift the focus of state law from punishing the victims of trafficking to punishing those who traffic individuals and those who would buy sex from them,” Thomas said.
Also known as the Buyer Beware Act, House Bill 12 expands the definition of trafficking under the state Crimes Code to match federal law. The expanded definition would now include any individual who patronizes or advertises a victim of trafficking.
According to Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the bill’s prime sponsor, this expansion is needed to reduce the increasing demand for these illegal services.
“In 2016, the number of reported cases involving human trafficking in the United States jumped by 35 percent,” Grove said. In that same year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 152 cases of trafficking in Pennsylvania.
“Despite the belief that human trafficking is a problem which exists only in third world countries, this is a hidden epidemic affecting many of our communities,” Grove said.
“It is time for a change,” said Mandy Mundy, senior director of programs and services for the Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) in Bucks County. “It’s time to hold traffickers and the people who buy commercial sex accountable for their crimes to deter them from future trafficking.”
Also testifying were Chesley Jackman, Bucks County deputy district attorney; Chief Michael Clark, Northampton Township Police Department; Fred Harran, director of Public Safety, Bensalem Township Police Department; Shea M. Rhodes, Esq., director and co-founder Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation; Donna Greco, PA Coalition Against Rape; Hugh Organ, MS, Covenant House; and representatives from local business and faith-based organizations.
House members in attendance included Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Meghan Schroeder (R-Bucks), Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), and Todd Polinchock (R-Bucks).
The Buyer Beware Act would also double the amount of maximum jail time that an individual may serve for trafficking or patronizing a victim of trafficking. Currently, these crimes are a second-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The bill upgrades these to a first-degree felony carrying a maximum penalty up to 20 years in prison.
In addition, those who patronize a victim of sex trafficking would see an increased fine from $500 to between $1,000 and $30,000 at the discretion of the court. If the victim is a minor at the time of the offense, the fine is increased to a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $100,000.
Mundy said the fines levied under House Bill 12 would support local agencies like NOVA in providing food, shelter, medical help, legal aid and other support for the victims of traffickers.
“One of the most effective ways to curb the persistent growth of human trafficking is through awareness and engaging the community through volunteerism,” said Dan Emr, executive director of Worthwhile Wear, a nonprofit organization that aids women affected by human trafficking.
“Susan” is currently receiving help through programs at a crisis center in another state. “They offer so much that human trafficking survivors need to start to heal,” she said. “At the end of the day, we are doing our best to not go back to the way life was, but to have a fulfilled life of purpose.”