In the past decade, states have dramatically changed laws targeting the sex trade to distinguish between voluntary prostitution and the trafficking of women and girls who are forced or coerced into selling sex, reports Stateline. Before the new laws, states primarily dealt with the sex trade by charging sex workers with prostitution. Many of those laws remain on the books, but states are supplementing them with “safe harbor” laws that protect minors and sometimes adults who can prove they were coerced into selling sex. The laws limit the degree to which these women and girls can be prosecuted and treat them as victims rather than criminals. Some states allow prostitution charges to be expunged from the records of those who have been trafficked. At the same time, states are toughening the penalties for traffickers who force women into sex work, as well as their customers.
Since August 2014, 236 trafficking bills were enacted in 42 states and Washington, D.C., says Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking group. Every state except Hawaii has a sex trafficking law. Yesterday, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, unveiled a plan to combat human trafficking in his state, with a focus on training law enforcement and other key players to recognize and respond to trafficking cases. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said, “The good news is this is a problem that deserves attention, research and awareness. The bad news is we're approaching it with an unjustified confidence we know what we're doing in passing laws and creating programs without really knowing what the best approach is.”