The governor signed two bills into law to expand protections for human trafficking victims in Washington Monday.
“I’m so thrilled,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat and the primary sponsor of both bills. She said the measures’ passage today shows that the public and lawmakers are becoming more aware of the problem of trafficking in Washington and the laws combating it are getting more aggressive.
In 2003, Washington became the first state to pass a law making human trafficking a crime, though it was illegal nationally already. Under federal law, human trafficking is defined as participating in coercing someone into forced labor, including forcing a person to perform commercial sex acts.
The new laws, which both go into effect in July, will explicitly authorize governments to use money from two $10 state surcharges—the Affordable Housing for All Surcharge and the Homeless Housing and Assistance Act—to help human trafficking victims and their families pay for housing.
They also make the state’s definition of human trafficking more specific and add the illegal sale of human organs to the list of trafficking offenses in the state.
King County prosecutor Sean O’Donnell said the new rules will make it easier to prosecute traffickers, especially those who use force, fraud or coercion to make someone engage in a commercial sex act.
He said prosecutors had found that Washington’s original human trafficking law needed to be more specific so jurors would have a clearer idea what it meant, as well.
A King County attorney first got a conviction under Washington’s human trafficking law in 2009 in the trial of a member of a street gang who took part in forcing women into prostitution.
Emma Catague, a victims’ rights advocate who works at the Asian and Pacific Islander Safety Center in Seattle, said she thought the bills would make a difference for the people she works with, especially when it came to finding them housing.
Now, she said, the center usually has to find victims private apartments to rent, which can be expensive.
“My hope is now we will really be able to put them in a safe place,” she said.
Money to house trafficking victims will come from fees collected by county auditors on some documents they record, such as deeds of trust, and like the other beneficiaries of those surcharges, human trafficking victims would still have to be low-income in order to receive help.