People gather to protest human trafficking at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse where the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell is being held on November 29, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
Two state lawmakers from Monmouth County have introduced four bills to strengthen protections for human trafficking victims in New Jersey.
The bills introduced by Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat, and Republican Assemblyman Ronald Dancer would:
- Eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting human trafficking crimes (current law requires prosecutors to bring charges within five years of a human trafficking offense);
- Expand the crime of human trafficking to include people who benefit financially from it;
- Permit victims and witnesses of human trafficking to testify in court via closed circuit television;
- Require truckers and other drivers in the transportation industry to undergo educational training on the dangers and warning signs of human trafficking.
The first two bills were introduced in 2018 and failed to pass. Dancer introduced them again in the Assembly earlier this legislative session, and they stalled. Gopal introduced the Senate versions of Dancer’s bills last week. With bipartisan support, Gopal said he hopes the bills will move through both bodies in the six weeks left before the session ends in early January.
“New Jersey has a unique opportunity to set a model for the rest of the country in standing up against human trafficking and to make sure we have some of the strongest laws to protect victims,” Gopal said.
Human trafficking is a crime that’s tough to track or quantify because it’s an underreported crime that carries a stigma, said Ali Boak, director of the Global Center on Human Trafficking at Montclair State University. Still, she noted, the National Human Trafficking Hotline ranked New Jersey 13th in the nation in the number of human trafficking cases reported in 2019.
New Jersey saw its largest case of human trafficking ever just this year, when federal authorities in May raided a Hindu temple in Robbinsville. About 200 workers there said leaders of the Hindu organization known as Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, lured them from India under religious visas, which are intended for people who minister or work a religious vocation. Instead, they said they were forced into manual labor under guard for years, working more than 12 hours a day, for as little as $1.20 a day, with few days off.
Boak applauded the bills now before the Legislature, especially those lifting the statute of limitations and allowing victims and witnesses to testify remotely.
“Prosecutions really are only as successful as the cooperation of the victims,” Boak said. “Removing the statute of limitations gives victims more time to heal and recover before being involved in a prosecution. Victims are the best witnesses when they have the protections of a law.”
Fear of facing their trafficker in person can dissuade some victims from testifying in court, she added. Allowing them to testify remotely “makes victims feel safer and more comfortable and will lead to increased prosecutions,” Boak added.
Boak’s center, which launched in September, is collecting data on human trafficking in New Jersey and aims to report its results to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office early next year, Boak said.
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