News: CJ Exclusives

Law would boost punishments for sex trafficking

Senate Bill 548 also seeks to separate legitimate therapy studios from criminal operations used in prostitution rings

RALEIGH — Sex trafficking rings often find cover in parlors specializing in massage therapy, which are unregulated in North Carolina, National Human Trafficking Hotline data shows.

North Carolina is one of the 10 states with the highest incidence of sex trafficking, meaning the trade reaches beyond the confines of massage and bodywork shops. But the state has to pick and choose its battles, and this is a good place to start, some lawmakers say.

Senate Bill 548, Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws/Studies, would increase regulations for massage therapy and bodywork parlors, which rank nationally as the second most likely cover for sex traffickers.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 181 cases of sex trafficking in North Carolina in 2016.

That number is unrealistically low, lawmakers say. It’s a highly organized crime, often run by larger gangs that hide victims and use drugs, violence, and threats to keep them silent.

Under state law, individual massage therapists must be licensed by the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy. Many own their businesses, while others contract with a studio owner. But, unlike therapists, actual places of business aren’t required to register with the state, making them exempt from regulation.

This lack of oversight makes it impossible to keep tabs on which businesses are legitimate — and which are covers for forced prostitution, Steven Walker, general counsel to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, told Carolina Journal.

Forest and Walker worked this year with Sen. Shirley Randleman, R-Wilkes, to introduce S.B. 548 into the Senate.

“With the overwhelming evidence on a national level that there are illicit massage and bodywork therapists that are participating in the scourge of human trafficking, we believe that there are no viable options but to require some regulation to ensure that massage therapists who are licensed, that proper legal protocols are followed, and that the workers are protected,” Randleman said Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“No owner shall engage in or permit any person or persons to engage in sexual activity in the owner’s massage and bodywork therapy establishment,” the bill says.

The goal is to thwart trafficking before it starts, Walker said.

S.B. 548 would force “adult entertainment” centers such as bars, strip clubs, and adult bookstores and theaters to display human trafficking awareness signs prominently in public view.

The legislation would also toughen punishments for convicted traffickers.

Under current law, trafficking an adult is a Class F felony, leading to a sentence of about 13 months in prison. Under S.B. 548, that charge would shift to a Class C felony, about 58 months in prison.

Trafficking a child is treated more seriously, shifting from a Class C to a Class B1 felony, and bumping a prison sentence from 58 to 192 months.

S.B. 548 passed out of committee, and will be taken up by the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate.