By Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield
Human trafficking is a billion dollar business in the United States and around the world. It’s hard for some to believe that a form of slavery exists here in our nation and in our state in modern times. Unfortunately, it does. St. Louis is ranked as one of the top 20 trafficking cities in the country. Just a few months ago the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies raided Dojo Pizza in south St. Louis in connection with an alleged human trafficking ring. The business is now closed and the building is condemned, but it serves as a reminder that human traffickers can set up shop anywhere, even a pizza place.
Fortunately, Missouri has been proactive in its approach to stop traffickers. It was in 2004 that Missouri became one of the first states in the nation to put sex trafficking laws in place. Last year we formed a task force to study additional ways to strengthen our laws to further crack down on the despicable actions of traffickers. As the chairman of the task force, my eyes were opened to the enormity of the industry and the devastating impact it has on the lives of so many.
As the task force learned, one of the steps we need to take here in Missouri to shut down trafficking is to implement tougher laws against those who help traffickers advertise their services. Websites like Backpage.com are used to advertise prostitution services, which many times involve children. Children have been sold through this website and then repeatedly raped and abused.
We must continue to strengthen our laws to crack down on trafficking. And while our laws have strong penalties for actual traffickers, they do not address the issue of those who knowingly help these criminals advertise their services. That is why I am again sponsoring legislation to expand the crime of sexual trafficking of a child to include the advertisement of a child participating in a commercial sexual act. Similar to Congresswoman Wagner’s SAVE Act, the legislation would give law enforcement another tool to investigate and prosecute those who knowingly advertise the victims of sex trafficking. At a hearing of the trafficking task force in St. Louis, Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh, spoke about the urgency of adopting this legislation to bring Missouri in line with many other states.
This change to Missouri law is an important part of the comprehensive approach we want to take to fight human trafficking here in our state. I am proud to say we have seen support from many in Missouri on this crucial issue. We may have partisan fights on issues like the budget, taxes, and education, but when it comes to trafficking, we don’t fight each other. We fight the traffickers; as one. It’s us against them. And we will win.