Human traffickers could face more severe penalties under a bill proposed by Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery County. The bill would raise the classification of a minor from 18 years to 21 in human trafficking cases. The crime is a felony against minors and a misdemeanor against anyone else.
“People have no idea that this is going on right under our noses. But human trafficking is very prevalent in our area,” Forehand said.
Nicole Lee of Baltimore became a victim of human trafficking when she was 17 years old. “It was an older gentleman. Felt me at a very vulnerable time in my life. Preyed upon my hopes and dreams. And it basically went from there. Coerced, traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Boston,” Lee said before a Senate hearing on the bill in Annapolis.
By 20 years old, Lee was transitioning back into a normal life. Now she is the residential director for The Samaritan Women, a shelter for women.
“We’re really looking forward to this bill to identify those girls who are specifically falling between the cracks of 18 and older adulthood,” said Jeanne Allert, Executive Director for the Samaritan Women.
Another survivor, Khlania Sweeney, agreed that raising the age of what is considered a minor is important. “Pimps will wait until you’re 18 and a day just so they won’t get in trouble for pimping you,” Sweeney said.
Trafficking In Maryland is lucrative. On average, a trafficker can make $200,000 in a year from one girl, Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition’s Melissa Yao said. Victims often tell them that Maryland is one of the top three most profitable states.
Allert said the 50-mile radius surrounding BWI airport is becoming known as the third-most-lucrative area for trafficking people.
Statistics on the number of people affected are just starting to be collected. The Polaris Project, however, ranks Maryland a tier two of four state for its legislation against trafficking.
Advocates and Forehand want people to make the public aware. The Senate bill’s counterpart in the House will have a hearing at the end of the month.
“If anyone thinks that it can’t happen here in Maryland I am one to tell you first hand that it can and it does every day,” Lee said.