Safe Harbor bill gets tough on sex traffickers, better protects - WSFX - FOX Wilmington, NC

UPDATE: "Safe Harbor" bill gets final approval, headed to Gov's desk

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The state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a compromise bill to provide safe harbor for victims of sex trafficking in North Carolina The state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a compromise bill to provide safe harbor for victims of sex trafficking in North Carolina

RALEIGH, NC (WECT) – A bill to provide safe harbor to victims of sex trafficking in North Carolina has gotten final approval in the Senate, and is headed to the Governor's desk for a signature.

"The fact that this bill passed is just so thrilling," said Assistant District Attorney, Lindsey Roberson, who helped to draft the bill. "We think its really going to change how we look at prostitution and how we look at victims versus offenders."

The Senate followed the House's actions on Tuesday, adopting a conference report for Senate Bill 683, the "Safe Harbor/Victims of Human Trafficking" bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Thom Goosy (R-New Hanover), Sen. Tamara Bar ringer (R-Wake) and Sen. Eleanor Innards (D-Orange). The report contains compromise language after the House changed the original bill. 

"The "Safe Harbor" legislation totally rewrites the prostitution laws in North Carolina, significantly increasing punishments for sex traffickers (pimps) and purchasers (johns), while focusing on treating minors involved in prostitution as the victims they are instead of criminals," said Goolsby in a statement. "The legislation also offers hope to women who escape a life of prostitution by allowing them deferred prosecutions and motions for appropriate relief to expunge their criminal pasts once they get treatment and help so they can have a real life. This is one of the most significant and far reaching laws upon which I have worked. I am very proud of what we have accomplished."

Roberson says sex trafficking is a problem in both Wilmington and the state of North Carolina, which ranks number 8 when it comes to human trafficking.  "This is a really big area for trafficking and it's time that we treat it seriously," she explained.

She says the legislation makes North Carolina tougher on the johns, by turning a second offense from a misdemeanor into a felony, "When pimping is a misdemeanor, not only is it not being investigated but it's not being charged, because it's a very extensive investigation. If its a felony, I think law enforcement officers across the state will crack down."

She hopes targeting the johns instead of the victims will help to bring both numbers down.

PREVIOUS REPORTS: SB 683 is designed to create a "safe harbor" for victims of human trafficking and minors sold into lives of prostitution. It toughens penalties for those charged with the offense (Class "E" Felony), and provides opportunities for sex trafficking victims to petition to have their convictions overturned and their records expunged, provided they meet several criteria.

"Sex trafficking is an ongoing scourge on our state," Sen. Goolsby said in a statement. "This Safe Harbor legislation is a comprehensive battle plan to stop these hideous crimes, protect the victims of sex trafficking and punish the purchasers and traffickers. I will work hard over the next several weeks on its passage."

Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Roberson of the Fifth Judicial District (New Hanover, Pender) helped write the language in SB 683. She calls it a "comprehensive bill", which also covers other issues such as mandating restitution for victims, and increasing the penalties not just for the traffickers but also for the pimps and johns involved in the sex trade.

"We need this legislation to attack the business of exploitation," Roberson said.  "In order to make a dent in the problem, we have to confront demand for commercial sex (the buyers, the pimps, the traffickers) and help the exploited victims find a better way of life

Click here to read the entire text of SB 683.

It is not the first bill introduced in this session to strengthen North Carolina's approach to the sex trafficking industry. Rep. Susi Hamilton (D-New Hanover) and Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) are two of four primary sponsors of the bi-partisan House Bill 221, the "Increase Penalties for Human Trafficking" bill. The bill toughens the penalty for anyone charged with human trafficking or other related offenses (Class "E" Felony), and mandated anyone convicted of the crimes to register with the state's Sex Offender Registry. The bill was referred to a Judiciary Subcommittee awaiting debate.

Click here to read the entire text of HB 221.

Rep. Hamilton had not seen the text of Sen. Goolsby's bill when asked for a comment.  "I am supportive of strengthening the laws for victims of sex trafficking and prostitution," she said in a phone interview. "It will take a group effort to improve North Carolina's standing in regards to protecting victims of sex trafficking."

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