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View from around the state: Congress should follow Wisconsin in fighting human trafficking

— From The Journal Times of Racine

Two months ago, we applauded Attorney General Josh Kaul’s proposal to strengthen Wisconsin’s efforts to combat human trafficking, and called for bipartisan support to add positions at the Department of Justice to help with investigations.

We’re pleased to see that Republicans and Democrats worked together in the budget process to increase staffing by 2.6 positions and show heightened awareness in this growing problem at the state level.

“This is the best budget for Wisconsin’s criminal justice system in a long time — and perhaps ever,” Kaul said last month.

Just looking at the budget’s impact on human trafficking enforcement, Wisconsin has boosted staffing in the Internet Crimes Against Children task force by one and has increased the digital forensics’ unit by the equivalent of 1.6 positions.

The outcome should support investigations at a time when law enforcement is focused on this problem and a safe house soon will open in Kenosha County and be the largest house operated by Selah Freedom, a Florida-based nonprofit with a mission to end sex trafficking.

That house will be staffed 24 hours a day and provide a residential program for survivors. Kenosha County was chosen as the location because of its proximity between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Sex trafficking is the second-largest organized crime behind drug trafficking. Every year, over 300,000 American children are trafficked.

“It’s everywhere,” Neal Lofy, a nationally recognized investigator of the Racine Police Department, has said. “These are people that live in our community that were either thrown away by their families or stuck in a lifestyle that they’ve been groomed by a trafficker. There’s not a shiny sign on them that says I’m a human trafficking victim …”

The increase in staffing at ICAC was especially meaningful to state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who was instrumental in getting the initial funding for the task force five years ago.

Scott Kelly, Wanggaard’s chief of staff, said it initially was part of Alicia’s Law, which targeted child pornography and sexual assault, but expanded to human trafficking in 2017.

“Our original request was just under $1 million,” Kelly said. “Then AG (Brad) Schimel requested $750,000 per year in his 2017-19 budget, which was approved. Every time ICAC does something good, we get a sense of pride in the office.”

While the state has stepped up to fight human trafficking, an effort in Congress led by Rep. Bryan Steil, a Republican representing the Wisconsin 1st Congressional District, is gaining support.

Steil’s first bill, known as the “Exposing the Financing of Human Trafficking Act,” has 40 co-sponsors in Congress. Steil has said the bill would hold nations accountable for their actions or lack of actions to curb the issue of human trafficking by using U.S. foreign aid as a carrot and stick and by going “after the money.”

“Human trafficking on a global scale is a $150 billion operation,” Steil said when introducing the bill. “We need to put a dent in that, we need to end that.”

We’d like to see Congress follow the state’s lead and act in a bipartisan matter to pass Steil’s bill. Law enforcement at every level, local and state officials, and everyone working hard against human trafficking would get a boost.

It’s the right thing, at the right time, and it has nothing to do with politics of any kind.

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