story by Ryan Saylor
Since new laws went into effect last year to improve Arkansas' laws combatting human trafficking, calls to the human trafficking hotline, hosted by the Polaris Project, have increased significantly.
Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said awareness of the once hidden issue coupled with the legislation he sponsored was responsible for the surge which has resulted in as many calls during the first six months of 2013 as all of 2012.
"It will be interesting to watch that data," he said. "It will be interesting to see if that is more data tied to both, but I'm interested to see the full 2013 statistics."
Leding said even though the number of calls to the hotline had spiked, residents should not fear that human trafficking is becoming a bigger problem in the state. Instead, he said awareness was helping bring the issue to the surface. The number, he said, is now posted at travel stops and other locations all over the state.
"Going back to an increase in awareness, I don't believe the problem became that much worse," he said. "it's just during the months of working on this legislation, more people were talking about it. Our progress was in the news a number of times and we talked about the hotline a number of times. I'd like to believe the increase was more to do with people having greater knowledge."
The reported increase in the number of calls to the hotline coincides with January being Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
Since Leding and Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, began pushing for a toughening of human traffic-related laws in Arkansas, the state has moved from one of the worst rated states by the Polaris Project to one of the top rated in terms of laws combating the issue. Meeks said even though the state was made significant progress since the issue was first brought to the attention of many Arkansans at a conference in June 2012, it was important to keep moving forward.
"We are making strides, but we can't stop until it is completely eliminated from the state of Arkansas," he said.
There are specific laws that still need to be strengthened, according to Meeks.
"I think (a lot of) it had to do with the safe harbor law," he said. "I think there was a half point or so that they recommended within that."
The law, which was sponsored by State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, may be revisited again in the next regular legislative session, Leding said.
"I know there were some concessions made on Sen. Elliott's safe harbor bill. Polaris would have liked it to be a bit stronger, that's something we might visit again in 2015."
State ratings for 2013 issued by Polaris also state that Arkansas should make movements in the area of vacating prostitution convictions for victims of human trafficking.
Meeks said exploring all the information from Polaris and trying to institute stricter human trafficking laws will continue, no matter the progress made.
"Again, it's something that we'll take a look at for Arkansas and if it is (a law that needs to be addressed), we'll definitely try to get it passed in the next legislative session."
Leding looked to the work being done by the Arkansas Attorney General's human trafficking task force as a resource for the legislature in the coming year.
"We'll watch the progress of the human trafficking task force," he said. "And we'll watch hotline data and go from there."
Residents who suspect human trafficking can call the human trafficking hotline at (888) 373-7888.