INDIANAPOLIS — Two Indiana lawmakers are once again trying to pass legislation to protect young victims of human trafficking.
State Rep. Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville) and State Rep. Sharon Negele (R-Attica) introduced House Bill 1081 which works to protect young human trafficking victims and strengthen criminal penalties against perpetrators.
Currently, Indiana law requires people 15 years old or older at the time of a trial to testify in court. This proposal would allow survivors 14 years old or younger at the time of their assault to submit a video statement for court procedures if they are younger than 18 at the time of the trial.
Whitney Nixon, Service Provider Support Director for the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program, says making these victims testify in person adds to the trauma that they have experienced.
“These are experiences that are personal. They are abusive. They’re also often considered very shameful by the individual who experienced them,” said Nixon.
The bill passed the house during the 2021 session, but a disagreement over language inserted in the senate committee made them decide to reboot and start again this session.
“We felt very strongly the author and myself when it came to the legal defense saying I didn’t know they were 18, that they weren’t 18. Was one of those sticking points that we were not comfortable in changing that the Senate had decided to change.”
The bill authored by McNamara would have removed consent from the victim as a defense and allowed young victims to submit video statements instead of testifying in court. It would have also increased penalties in situations when the victim was under age 18.
But a Senate amendment was later introduced that would have provided a defense for those facing prosecution if they said they didn’t know a child victim was under 18.
The bill would also close a legal loophole that allows individuals who pay a victim directly for sex acts to receive a lighter sentence. Currently, individuals who offer to or pay for sex acts can only be prosecuted with a Level 5 felony if they pay the trafficker directly.
Negele says nearly 25 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, making it the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal industry, according to the U.S. State Department. In Indiana, there were 140 human trafficking cases reported in 2020, up from 95 in 2017, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Negele says the issue is only getting worse and wants victims to know that people have their back.
“We understand how difficult it can be for a victim in this scenario and we want to do our best to make sure that we put these perpetrators behind bars,” said Negele.
The bill will be up for a hearing in the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee next Wednesday.