Too often, state and local policies fail victims of human trafficking. Instead of perpetuating antiquated laws that falsely criminalize victims or stymy trafficking education, prevention, and justice, state policymakers can – and must – do more.
Pennsylvania advocates and policymakers have notched encouraging legislative wins in recent years. For instance, in 2018 Pennsylvania became a Safe Harbor State, ensuring children never face criminal prostitution charges. In 2020, the governor signed the Buyer Beware Act, a first step in focusing penalization on those who buy sex and perpetrate exploitation instead of punishing victims.
Yet more work remains. Here is a list of 2023 – 2024 Pennsylvania anti-human trafficking legislation.
Senate Bill 88 – Expanding victim relief from a criminal record
Victims often incur criminal charges such as solicitation, drug possession, or theft as a result of their trafficking. They can appeal to vacate just six types of crimes from their criminal records. As a result, many suffer employment, housing, and domestic barriers in addition to their exploitation – derailing their attempts at freedom and restoration.
- Summary: Sponsored by Sen. Muth, this legislation would expand vacatur eligible crimes to include theft and contempt charges. It would further streamline much needed relief by no longer requiring the District Attorney to approve a trafficking-based motion for expungement.
- Status: The bill must receive Senate Judiciary Committee approval before moving to the full Senate and House.
House Bill 394 – Improving victims’ ability to sue their offenders
State law allows individuals to bring civil lawsuits against any person who participated in their human trafficking, including those who recruit, abuse, and profit from victims. Sometimes these cases can be filed in the county where the victim resides, other times they must be filed where the violation occurred. This administrative complication decreases accountability against perpetrators and justice for victims.
- Summary: Sponsored by Rep. Rob Kauffman, this legislation makes it easier for human trafficking victims to bring lawsuits against their offenders by allowing them to file these lawsuits either where they live or where the violations occurred.
- Status: Passed by the House Judiciary Committee in April 2023, the bill now requires full House and then Senate approval.
House Bill 93 – Preventing human trafficking in higher education
Exploitation underpins all human trafficking – in particular, exploitation from someone in a trusted position, such as parents, employers, coaches, and romantic partners. As a result, many victims fail to recognize their trafficking and never seek support. Young people entering adulthood remain at-risk and ill-equipped to spot warning signs and prevent victimization.
- Summary: Sponsored by Rep. Robert Leadbeter, this legislation directs Pennsylvania public universities to offer students an in-depth prevention and education series on trafficking and exploitation. The programs, provided in partnership with nonprofit organizations, will be provided at no cost to the universities and students. With greater education comes improved prevention, helping young people protect themselves and their friends.
- Status: The bill must receive House Education Committee approval before moving to the full House and then Senate.
Senate Bill 515 – Enhancing reporting of crimes against children
Currently, health care centers must notify child protective services or law enforcement when children are provided services for STDs, pregnancy, abortions, or contraception. This in intended to flag suspected sexual abuse or exploitation. Without proper compliance reviews that notifications occur, many children may miss this opportunity for protection.
- Summary: Sponsored by Sen. Michelle Brooks, this legislation would require Department of Health records inspections to ensure health centers notify child protective services or law enforcement if providing contraceptive, STD, pregnancy, or abortion services to children. The reform further outlines forensic evidence procedures, civil cause of action for parents, and penalties for inspection violations to incentivize identification of child victimization.
- Status: The bill must pass the Senate Health and Human Services Committee before moving to the full Senate and House.
House Bill 256 – Increasing notification of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center
Since its creation in 2007, calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline have helped identify over 160,000 trafficking victims. Ensuring more people have access to the hotline is a simple, yet vital step in fighting exploitation and helping more victims access freedom and restoration.
- Summary: Sponsored by Rep. Rob Merski, this legislation expands access to the National Human Trafficking Hotline information by requiring posting in all public restrooms.
- Status: The bill awaits approval from the House Labor and Industry Committee before it can move to the full House and Senate.
The rights, protections, and futures of victims of human trafficking hinge on government laws and policies. By spreading awareness and even contacting your representative to support these reforms, you can be part of the solution. Now is the time to not only remove harmful policies, but to elevate the rights of victims to be treated with dignity and offered a safer, brighter future.