How you can improve Alaska’s beleaguered human trafficking laws

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Jan. 21, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Working to end human trafficking in Alaska is central to our mission at Covenant House Alaska. Yet, this will likely remain an uphill battle for as long as our laws remain in their current state.

Alaska’s human trafficking laws fail to address the breadth of trafficking crimes committed against children while lacking the nuance to ensure justice and support for survivors. With laws that experts consider to be the worst of any US state, our representatives must make sweeping changes if we are to rid our state of human trafficking.

While our state government is beginning to take meaningful steps to correct these grave errors, Alaskans need to remain engaged with human trafficking issues long after Human Trafficking Awareness Month is over to demand its diligence and follow-through.

Right now, the facts are grim. Yet, the truth about human trafficking in Alaska is that it is a solvable problem if we commit to ending this blight as a community. 

Defining terms: “Commercial sexual exploitation of children”

Many of Alaska’s deficiencies in its human trafficking laws arise from the specifics of its language. Thus, an awareness of human trafficking requires understanding a few technical terms that often guide the implementation and determine the effectiveness of these laws. 

The first term that we need to define is the “commercial sexual exploitation of children,” or CSEC. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention defines CSEC as a “range of crimes and activities involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person or in exchange for anything of value … given or received by any person.” 

Activists and experts advocate for the use of this term instead of phrases like “child prostitution” or “child sex trafficking” because it does a better job of including the full range of sexual crimes committed against children, while other such terms often refer to individual crimes. 

For example, CSEC’s definition specifies that any sexual abuse of a child “in exchange for anything of value” qualifies as CSEC. Thus, this term covers the common yet overlooked practice of criminals offering children things other than money, like a place to stay or drugs, in exchange for sexual acts. 

While this term is favored for its catch-all nature, specific crimes that constitute CSEC include child sex trafficking, the production or distribution of child pornography, sex tourism, early marriage and many others. 

Defining terms: “Human trafficking”

Similarly, understanding what the term “human trafficking” does and does not mean is crucial to understanding these laws. 

Defined by the Department of Justice, “human trafficking” refers to any “crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” This term is sometimes used interchangeably with “trafficking in persons (TIP).”

While “human trafficking” is often mistakenly used as a synonym for sex trafficking, this definition and revisions to US federal anti-trafficking laws clarify there are two main dimensions of human trafficking: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. 

Labor trafficking refers to the use of coercion to get someone to perform labor or a service. One common example is someone threatening another person with violence to pressure them into running drugs. 

Similarly, sex trafficking refers to a person coercing someone else into committing a commercial sex act. However, under federal law, in any circumstance in which the person committing the sex act is under 18, it constitutes human trafficking regardless of if the perpetrator coerces or forces the minor into the act. Alaskan law extends this threshold to anyone under 20.

So, all of the crimes under the umbrella of CSEC are also under the larger umbrella of human trafficking. At the same time, human trafficking does not refer solely to CSEC or sex trafficking, as it also includes labor trafficking. 

One common misconception about human trafficking is that it requires someone to transport another person across a state or international border. This is not the case. Under the law, human trafficking can take place entirely within the confines of the same state or even the same city block. 

Addressing the breadth and depth of human trafficking

What these terms illustrate, and why it is important to understand their nuances, is how wide the scope of human trafficking is and how many individual crimes fall under it. 

If we are to rid Alaska of human trafficking, our laws need to be carefully written to accommodate the breadth and depth of this issue. This demands a linguistic balancing act of using language that is at times inclusive enough to catch all instances of human trafficking and precise enough to administer justice to its specific infractions at others. 

This is a difficult task for lawmakers. Legislating in this way requires subject-matter expertise that many legislators, who are responsible for passing laws on a wide variety of topics, may not have while affording little room for error. 

By this token, a state’s failure to pass airtight anti-trafficking laws does not mean its politicians are indifferent or even weak on this issue. However, it does mean that there are identifiable and consequential holes in its ability to prosecute traffickers and protect survivors. 

Alaska’s current, and failing, human trafficking laws

By any and all measures, Alaska’s anti-trafficking laws fail to protect its youth from sexual exploitation. 

The expert nonprofit Shared Hope International placed Alaska last on its 2021 ranking of every state’s child sex trafficking laws. Our state failed to meet each of Shared Hope’s six criteria for effective legislation, which measured everything from the clarity of a state’s laws to its ability to guarantee justice and care for victims. 

Some of these failings stem from a lack of specific language differentiating CSEC from other crimes. This often results in disastrous unintended consequences.

In one egregious example, the way Alaska’s “Prostitution” statutes are written makes them apply equally to minors and adults. As a result, victims of child sex trafficking may end up facing criminal charges, thousands of dollars in fines, or even jail time if they are alleged to have violated these laws. 

By a similar token, Alaska’s courtroom protections for minors are written in a way that fails to extend them to victims of CSEC. While Alaska offers children under 16 the option to testify via closed-circuit television in cases of “Offenses Against the Person,” CSEC cases are classified as “Offenses Against Public Health and Decency.” Thus, minors may have no choice but to endure the trauma of facing their trafficker in court. 

Other shortcomings are due to the language of Alaska’s laws failing to capture the broad range of crimes that can constitute CSEC and human trafficking. This creates loopholes that may prevent prosecutors from holding traffickers to account or victims from accessing life-saving resources. 

For example, Alaska’s human trafficking laws lack a penalty scheme for business entities that profit from trafficking. Alaska does have a catch-all law that charges any individual who assists a trafficker in their crimes with a felony, but the absence of such a law specific to business entities may limit the state’s ability to hold them accountable and hinder trafficking investigations. 

Furthermore, the law only binds Alaska to connect victims to child welfare services when their trafficker is a “person responsible for the child’s welfare.” This means that in cases where a survivor’s trafficker is not their parent or guardian, the state may not be required to provide them with such help.

Finally, Alaskan law does not mandate training on the identification and intervention in child sex trafficking for its Office of Children’s Services employees, state employees in general, law enforcement officers, judges or teachers. 

While this does not mean that these individuals do not undergo any such training, and in fact federal law mandates it for OCS employees, codifying this requirement in state law ensures such a commitment and establishes an important measure of accountability. 

Hope for improvement

While Alaska’s anti-human trafficking laws are pockmarked with undeniable holes, politicians are beginning to take notice and take the first steps towards action.

Last month, Governor Mike Dunleavy announced his “People First Initiative,” a series of legislation and executive actions aimed to improve public safety in Alaska. One of the issue areas that this project promises to address is the shortcomings of Alaska’s labor and sex trafficking laws. 

As part of this initiative, Governor Dunleavy created the Governor’s Council on Human and Sex Trafficking via administrative order on Dec. 14. The order created a 15-member advisory board tasked with delivering a report to the governor recommending improvements to Alaska’s anti-trafficking laws and victim services by Sept. 30. 

Additionally, the governor plans to shore up these laws by passing a broad crime bill that both patches up Alaska’s trafficking laws and makes other changes to the penal code, according to a press release

At press time, a draft of this bill is not available to the public. However, the governor’s office will likely wait until the council finishes its report before writing the bill so that it may incorporate their recommendations. 

With this blitz of serious action, there just might be cause for hope that Alaska is on a path towards justice and recovery for its human trafficking survivors. 

Awareness prompts action

If this piece has demonstrated nothing else, it is that human trafficking legislation exists in a world of nuance and tact. As a result, we want to be very careful and very clear with what we want to call upon our readers to do. 

All we want to ask is that you remain aware of the state of human trafficking in Alaska and continue to educate yourself and others about this heinous crime. 

While we applaud Governor Dunleavy’s creation of the advisory council, it would be irresponsible to encourage support of this crime bill before we know its specifics. However, remaining passionate and informed on this issue is the best way to keep pressure on our representatives and ensure their steadfastness in the fight against human trafficking. If you would like to read more about Covenant House Alaska’s anti-trafficking work, click here. If you are interested in volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, click here.

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