By Kristen M. Daum
LANSING — The final report from the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission lays out a path for state legislators, law enforcement officials and advocates to better aid victims of the criminal enterprise and to aggressively prosecute the people behind it.
However, it appears Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and some state lawmakers are repeatedly overstating the presence of the problem in Michigan by relying on speculation rather than proven data.
The commission’s 63-page report, released Wednesday, is the culmination of six months of work from a panel of lawmakers and advocates who Schuette appointed in March.
Schuette heralded the report as “the first big effort we’re making here” to better combat human trafficking in Michigan. Human trafficking essentially is forced labor or prostitution. “This is an expression by people across this state that this is a problem and we’re calling it out,” Schuette said.
Schuette said that the number of victims in Michigan each year is likely in the “thousands, could be a couple thousands,” but the report from Schuette’s own commission states proven cases of human trafficking are far lower. The report also underscores needed improvements in how those cases are currently tracked.
As part of the commission’s work, members surveyed domestic violence and sexual assault programs and found about 300 cases of human trafficking were reported in the past two years across the state.
Meanwhile, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline said it received 303 calls from Michigan in 2012.
Of those, the center reported 70 calls that contained “high” or “moderate” levels of information about actual trafficking.
Schuette isn’t the only official to overstate incidents of human trafficking using vague numbers. Republican Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, has said repeatedly in news releases this year that as many as 150 girls every month were being trafficked in Michigan.
That would equate to 1,800 girls a year for Michigan alone. By comparison, The U.S. Department of Justice found 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking in the United States across the 2 ½-year period between January 2008 and June 2010, the most recent data available.
The commission report claims “in Michigan, there is a serious and growing problem with human trafficking,” but later states that “without accurate data, it is impossible to measure the prevalence of Michiganbased trafficking activities or evaluate the effectiveness of programs intended to end human trafficking.”
Experts say quantifying the true scope of human trafficking remains a challenge, because law enforcement officers can misidentify human trafficking cases as prostitution or other crimes, and because victims might not come forward to report the harm that’s been done to them.
The Human Trafficking Commission’s report includes recommendations for professional training and a uniform reporting system to improve Michigan’s data collection on the crime.
“Although we think we have identified victims, we’ve just started to begin,” said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force at Michigan State University.
The commission report also includes recommendations on suggested services for victims, proposed legislation to strengthen penalties and shield victims, and ways to increase the public’s awareness of human trafficking as modern-day slavery.
Lawmakers said their work will begin this month with hearings on the 11 legislative recommendations contained in the report.
“All of (the recommendations) are designed to protect the victims and to crack down on those who engage in human trafficking — and that includes the johns, and the pimps, and their property and assets and anything that allows them to do operations in Michigan,” said Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, a co-chairman of the human trafficking panel and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee.
“This report, from a legislative standpoint, is not something that we intend to put on the shelf,” Heise said.
Members of the Michigan Senate also introduced a package of 18 bills in late September to address human trafficking.
The report does not include details on how much it might cost to implement these changes and Schuette offered no specifics Wednesday on where the dollars might come from, other than to say public-private partnerships could be an option. “The first measure of success is this comprehensive report,” Schuette said.
“We’re going to implement it and keep moving forward,” he said.
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