News: CJ Exclusives

Bill would help protect victims who are forced to help human traffickers

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, at the General Assembly in 2017. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, at the General Assembly in 2017. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

Victims of human trafficking can feel mistreated in the North Carolina justice system, facing charges for offenses they committed while under the influence of coercion and deception, state policymakers say.

A new bill, which passed the N.C. General Assembly on June 15 and is awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, could change that.

Senate Bill 162, “Human Trafficking Restorative Justice,” creates, among other things, a statutory defense for trafficking victims who are forced to help enslave or prostitute other victims, said Sharon Gladwell, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

North Carolina is among the top 10 worst states for human trafficking, data collected by the Polaris National Human Trafficking Hotline says.

“[S.B. 162] will ease every victim’s path to recovery by protecting their dignity in court proceedings,” Gladwell told Carolina Journal.

S.B. 162 in 2017 originated as a law enforcement bill, but was revised June 14 to address legal recourse for victims of forced labor and prostitution. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, sponsored the bill’s new language, which was proposed by AOC and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with the N.C. Human Trafficking Commission.

This is the second human trafficking bill Brawley has sponsored. Last year he pushed House Bill 910, “Human Trafficking, Resistance and Rescue.” That legislation sought to establish better training to help law enforcers identify victims of trafficking. It also appropriated millions for survivors’ housing and rehab. The bill ultimately failed to move through the House.

North Carolina identified more than 220 cases of trafficking last year via calls to the NCHTC. That’s a low-ball number, since victims don’t self-report, many law enforcers say.

Brawley, a Charlotte real estate broker, has seen the tragic effects of trafficking in his home city. The area is a nest for trafficking due to its proximity to major interstate corridors — and its role as a major business and sports hub. Brawley was unavailable to comment for this story.

In addition to creating a statutory defense, S.B. 162 expands the definition of “victim” to include all people subjected to human trafficking, sexual servitude, and involuntary servitude. It also bars public disclosure of information about the victim and broadens qualifications for restitution, Gladwell said.

Juveniles — who by law are considered “abused” only if they suffer at the hands of a parent — would benefit from the legislation. DHHS worked closely with the bill’s sponsors to update the state’s definition of abuse and neglect to include cases in which the perpetrator is someone other than a parent, caretaker, guardian or custodian, DHHS spokeswoman Chris Mackey told CJ.

“This proposed change in the law is important because it aligns the state with recent federal changes and allows all minors who are victims of human trafficking to access social services,” Mackey said.

S.B. 162 directs the NCHTC to study sentencing for trafficking crimes.

The legislature in 2017  toughened punishments for traffickers. Senate Bill 548, “Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws/Studies,” shifted trafficking an adult from a Class F to a Class C felony, bumping the punishment from 13 to 58 months in prison. The legislature also voted to change sentences for trafficking a child from a Class C to a Class B1 felony, moving that prison sentence from 58 to 192 months.

The NCHTC’s examination would consider appropriate levels of sentencing for offenses. It also would determine whether any revisions to sentencing levels would reduce human trafficking, and would scrutinize possible effects of expanding eligibility for post-conviction relief to human trafficking victims.

The NCHTC would report their findings to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2019.

Click here to read more about human trafficking in North Carolina.