It was just last June that Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, was hosting a forum on human trafficking at NorthWest Arkansas Community College after Arkansas was named among the worst states in efforts to prevent and prosecute human trafficking, which more often than not involves abduction and selling young girls into sex slavery.
But in just one year, Arkansas has gone from the bottom of the rankings to near the top, with the state recently being placed in the top tier of states fighting human trafficking by the Polaris Project, an organization whose goal is to eliminate human trafficking through education and legal remedies.
Leding said last year's rating and forum served as a wake up call for legislators as they met in January for the 89th General Assembly.
"We were really among just a handful of states that didn't have the proper laws on the books," he said. "We worked together with Polaris and other groups to prepare legislation (to combat human trafficking)."
To achieve the improved ranking, Leding and two other legislators, Republican Rep. David Meeks of Conway and Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott of LIttle Rock, crafted and pushed through three different pieces of legislation that not only increased penalties for human trafficking in the state of Arkansas, but also worked to increase awareness and reporting while also stopping the prosecution of underaged victims.
"With my bill, a lot of times people who are rescued are in prostitution situations, but it's forced," Leding said. "In the previous legal climate, they would still be prosecuted even though it was by force. So we wanted to create a safe harbor, which was Sen. Elliott's bill."
The bill grants immunity to underage individuals who authorities can prove were forced into prostitution, allowing the victims to testify against their assailants without the fear of being charged with a crime themselves.
That portion of the bill was crafted with the help of prosecuting attorneys from across the state, Leding said, in order to prevent any loopholes from appearing "that we'd later regret."
Legislators also worked with local police departments to include provisions in the new laws that may not have been previously considered, Leding said.
"They had a problem where they arrested a John who they felt was guilty of (being involved with prostitution). The way the law read, that person had to pay for the prostitution. A loophole would have guys who hadn't paid yet (not being convicted or having charges dropped). Now, (the law says) if you've paid or plan to pay (for sex). … We definitely wanted to go after the people who are trafficking, but they wouldn't be going after these women if there wasn't a market. we wanted to do all we could to reduce the market for these trafficking victims."
In a press release, Polaris highlighted all of the work done by legislators in Arkansas, naming the state as "most improved."
"Arkansas catapulted from Tier 4 to Tier 1 after passing legislation which allowed for asset forfeiture from traffickers, provided law enforcement training, mandated posting of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, provided victim services, and more."
The move not only in Arkansas, but in many other states, was historic according to Bradley Myles, CEO of the Polaris Project.
"We’ve witnessed a historic turning point now that all fifty states have passed laws criminalizing human trafficking. However, criminals are trafficking women, men, and children from coast to coast at horrendous rates. In every state, we need to give prosecutors and law enforcement the right tools to stop traffickers, and state agencies must have the ability to protect survivors and help them reclaim their freedom."
In Arkansas, Polaris has said one area needing improvement on is the area of vacating convictions for victims of human trafficking. It's something Leding said he will continue to work on with his colleagues in the General Assembly should he win re-election next year.
"It doesn't quite have all of the teeth that Polaris would have liked to have seen, but they are things we could eventually see down the road. It depends on the number of human trafficking cases in Arkansas," he said. "We were the last southern state to have these laws on the books. There had been cases in the state and we didn't want it to get worse. It could have been a problem if we hadn't done anything."
Leding also said as part of the new laws taking affect this year, Polaris' human trafficking hotline is now posted in areas across the state, such as truck stops and bars. He said it is important for the public to understand that the number of human trafficking cases reported to Polaris, and in turn reported to authorities, was likely to go up due to the increased awareness of the problem.
"We may see the number of reported cases go up if people become aware of the issue," he said. "It may have been happening all along, just not reported. It's possible we could see an uptick, though there are no additional cases of the crime (being committed). I think we'll see more calls to the hotline."
If you know of or suspect human trafficking, the Polaris Project's human trafficking hotline can be reached at (888) 373-7888.