Weekly Columns

An estimated 25 million people are victims of human trafficking around the world. Smuggling people for forced labor and sex slavery is a heinous crime. It is the kind of crime that we tend to think happens in some far-off place, but these atrocities are happening all across the globe—including, unfortunately, in the United States. 

In fact, human trafficking appears to be on the rise in in our country, according to data released by Polaris, which shows a 13 percent jump in cases reported to the helplines it runs.  Since Polaris began operating helplines over ten years ago, it has received reports of 203 cases of human trafficking from Arkansas. Almost half of those were in the past two years. 

This spike has led Congress to increase efforts to combat human trafficking. Last year, the Senate unanimously passed two pieces of legislation to renew existing programs in support of survivors and help bring perpetrators of these horrific crimes to justice. The Abolish Human Trafficking Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act authorized additional resources to law enforcement to combat human trafficking and reauthorizes key programs to help survivors in their recovery.

We have made progress, but more needs to be done. That is why Congress recently passed legislation to give law enforcement and prosecutors additional tools to crack down on crimes involving exploitation of the vulnerable.

It will help us take on nefarious actors like Backpage, who hid behind the Communications Decency Act to avoid prosecution for trafficking crimes, by ripping away the cover from these bad actors. 

The bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), will reform a misused provision in the current law that allows companies to evade prosecution for online business practices that facilitate human trafficking. 

These narrowly-crafted changes to the law will ensure websites that knowingly facilitate criminal sex trafficking online are held accountable. “Knowingly” is the key word here.

During the last session of Congress, the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, under the leadership of Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), uncovered just how much Backpage knew—and it was a lot. In fact, Backpage’s operators helped customers modify their ads to hide references to underage prostitutes.

I think we can all agree that rises to the threshold of “knowingly” facilitating sex trafficking online. This bill ensures that these bad actors won’t be able to fade quietly into the dark as we are giving state attorneys general the authority to prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws.

That’s why I supported this bill and cosponsored similar legislation in the Senate. It is also why I supported the inclusion of at least $90 million in federal funding to combat human trafficking.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will continue to support funding for these important programs. I’m pleased to see all levels of government lending their support to help fight this crime. Together we can end this attack on human rights in our state, our country and around the world.