Wisconsin task force offers bills to fight human trafficking

WISCONSIN STATE REP. Jerry O’Connor introduces a package of legislation to combat human trafficking during a news conference Wednesday at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., as members of the state Assembly’s human trafficking task force look on. (AP Photo/Todd Richmond)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A task force that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created last summer to bolster Wisconsin’s response to human trafficking finished its work Wednesday by introducing a slate of bills that would increase awareness of the issue, impose tougher punishments for soliciting prostitutes and make it easier for victims to sue traffickers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as using force, fraud or coercion to obtain some kind of labor or commercial sex act. That can include slavery and prostitution rings. It is a worldwide problem; the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified 796 cases in Wisconsin since the hotline began in 2007 involving 1,640 victims.

Shared Hope International, an organization that works to eradicate trafficking, gave Wisconsin laws addressing trafficking an “F” grade for 2023. The organization said it found multiple areas in the statutes lacking, including financial penalties for trafficking and crime victim compensation, as well as training for police, prosecutors, school workers and child welfare workers.

Vos, a Republican, appointed 13 lawmakers to the task force in August. The group held four public hearings with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and nonprofit organizations that support trafficking victims over the course of the fall. The task force introduced 11 bills at a news conference in the state Capitol on Wednesday morning.

“At the end of the day we want to know we made a difference and didn’t just take up space here at the Capitol for four months,” the panel’s chair, Republican Rep. Jerry O’Connor, said.

The first bill would create a human trafficking council that would maintain an inventory of human trafficking prevention programs in Wisconsin, compile data on human trafficking offenses, study how traffickers use social media and develop a plan to prevent trafficking. The measure also would require police to compete a training course in recognizing and investigating trafficking. Counties with high levels of trafficking would have to establish trafficking task forces.

A second bill would require schools to educate students in grades 7-12 on human trafficking prevention and teachers to receive training on how to identify children who might be at risk of being trafficked.

Another measure would require group home workers and all other workers likely to interact with vulnerable individuals, including security guards, hotel managers and adult entertainment venue managers, to receive training on identifying trafficking victims and how to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Other bills would require cosmetology and barber schools to instruct students on the dynamics of exploitation and how to report it. Bars, job recruitment centers, schools, group homes and tattoo parlors would have to display human trafficking posters created by the state Justice Department.

Soliciting prostitution would be charged as a Class G felony, rather than a Class H felony, increasing the maximum sentence from six years in prison to 10 years.

Anyone convicted of solicitation would face a mandatory minimum prison sentence ranging from six months for a first offense to three years for a fourth or subsequent offense.

The legislation also clarifies that child trafficking victims can bring a civil lawsuit against their traffickers until they turn 35 years old and can sue regardless of whether anyone was prosecuted or convicted.

At least four other bills dealing with human trafficking have been floating around the Legislature since early 2023, but they have yet to receive a floor vote in either the Assembly or Senate.

The proposals would provide criminal immunity for prostitutes under age 18; tighten regulations for adult entertainment establishments; create a task force on missing Black women and girls; and prohibit taking in a runaway child without notifying police.

It’s unclear if any of those bills or the task force’s proposals will clear either house before the two-year legislative session ends this spring. The Assembly is expected to adjourn for the session late next month.

Vos spokesperson Angela Joyce didn’t immediately respond to an email Wednesday inquiring about whether the speaker supports the legislation. Brian Radday, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, also didn’t immediately respond to an email.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today