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Aug. 11, 2011

Stopping human trafficking requires state action, activist actress tells lawmakers

Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino makes a plea for states to take steps to offer "safe harbor" to sex workers and other trafficking victims.

SAN ANTONIO—States must become actively involved to end human trafficking, Mira Sorvino told attendees at one NCSL Summit session on Thursday.

“If we change state legislation to be as strong as it can possibly be, all of you will be saving lives, literally,” said Sorvino, an Oscar-winning actress and United National Goodwill Ambassador.

There are federal laws and international agreements, but manpower issues mean the most effective enforcement must happen at the state level and in local communities—and state laws must change to deal with the rising threat, she said.

Only six states offer sex workers and other trafficking victims a “safe harbor.” The rest treat prostitutes as criminals themselves, lessening the likelihood that they will report abuse.

Sorvino cited several changes in state laws to help end the practice, including the need for longer, harsher sentences for anyone involved in trafficking. Property forfeiture similar to that required in drug crimes also would help remove the incentive for the trade, as would allowing victims to sue for civil damages with increased penalties.

She also called for improved training for law enforcement, prosecutors, health care workers and other who come into contact with trafficking victims. Funding could come from dedicated fees for adult businesses or fines on sex offenders and traffickers. That money should also be used for victim relief and counseling, she said.

Human trafficking is not only sex-related, but also a way for sweatshops to obtain cheap or free labor. In addition, many Americans see human trafficking as an issue only for developing nations or as an issue that only affects immigrants to the United States. “Contrary to popular misconception, in the U.S. we have at least as large if not a larger population of our own citizens, our own domestic children and teenagers, as we have foreign nationals as far as trafficking victims,” she said. The Internet also has made it easier for abusers to network, communicate, and do business.

Human trafficking has grown into a $32 billion industry, larger than arms dealing and second only to the drug trade in terms of illegal activities. In fact, many drug cartels are expanding into slavery because of the lower risks, the more lenient punishments, and the ability to sell the same person’s services repeatedly.


NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.