Thanks to two VLS students, Tennessee human trafficking legislation is no longer stalled

Jonathan Misk Sean Perryman

As their final assignment in Professor Roger Conner's "Non-litigation Strategies for Change in Public and Social Policy" course during fall 2009, Jonathan Misk '10 and Sean Perryman '11 developed a strategy to secure passage of legislation to strengthen the state's penalties for human trafficking. "The course was designed to teach us strategies other than litigation for solving problems facing the broader community," Misk said. "Professor Conner focused primarily on legislative and regulatory approaches as we explored the most effective ways to get legislators and other individuals with the power to effect change to act."

Eager for an opportunity to do true advocacy work, Misk and Perryman parlayed the final assignment into an independent study in spring 2010, during which they would carry out their strategy. "We were going to hit the pavement to guarantee passage of this bill," Perryman said.

Misk and Perryman started by reviewing the bill, which sought to broaden the state's ability to prosecute human trafficking by clarifying the definition of trafficking and increasing the seriousness of human trafficking offenses. They proposed several changes, including heavier sentences when trafficking victims were raped, subjected to violence, or murdered; a more lucid distinction between victims trafficked to perform labor and those trafficked for sexual slavery; clearer guidelines for the prosecution of juveniles and adults compelled to commit criminal acts by their traffickers; the ability of trafficking victims to use the fact that they were trafficked as an affirmative defense to any prostitution charges; allowing victims of trafficking to sue their traffickers for civil damages; and additional training to teach law enforcement officers how to differentiate between willing prostitutes and trafficking victims. An August 2010 case in which two 17-year-old girls were arrested for prostitution illustrates two issues Misk and Perryman believed the bill should address: Trafficking victims are often arrested for criminal acts they are forced by their traffickers to perform, and some are juveniles forced into servitude by adults. Both girls had been brought to Tennessee by a 36-year-old man who was selling their sexual services. Misk and Perryman were also sickened to learn that the average age of sex trafficking victims is 13; many are either runaways or victims of kidnapping.

When the students met with the bill's sponsor, Representative Sherry Jones, they hoped to discuss their proposed revisions to her bill. However, the bill as it stood contained provisions that increased incarceration time for convicted human traffickers. As a result, the state administration had attached a "fiscal note" to the bill indicating that it would cost the state an additional $212,000 each year. Jones explained that, in the current economic climate, any bill that increased state expenditures had no chance of passage. Misk and Perryman put their suggested revisions and additions on hold while they explored two ways to offset the cost. To their disappointment, neither proved workable. The amount the state could anticipate receiving from seizing the assets of convicted traffickers was impossible to project, and any federal grant money the state could get would not continue indefinitely.

Just as the pair had concluded they had hit an insurmountable obstacle, Pat Dishman, then Tennessee's Director for Criminal Justice Programs, suggested that they revise the bill to create a legislative committee to study human sex trafficking in Tennessee and report to the state legislature by the 2011 session. "She also knew that federal funding would be available for the study," Misk said. This new version of the bill passed on June 4, 2010, and was signed by Governor Phil Bredesen on June 9. With the study of human trafficking in Tennessee now underway, Misk and Perryman now hope that by the end of the 2011 legislative session, Tennessee will be a more dangerous place for human sex traffickers.

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