Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to legislation intended to increase the possible penalties for human trafficking.
Under the legislation, possible prison sentences would be five years to 20 years for those convicted of crimes such as trafficking for slavery or forced labor, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse through forced labor. People convicted of those crimes also could be fined up to $250,000. Currently, those trafficking offenses carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Courts also would be required to order those convicted the trafficking offenses to pay restitution to compensate victims for the value of their labor and for mental and physical rehabilitation needed for victims and their children. Additionally, trafficking victims could file a civil lawsuit, and the state attorney general's office could bring its own lawsuit seeking a civil penalty of up to $50,000 per violation from people who benefit from trafficking violations.
House members voted 154-0 to give the measure final approval Tuesday. The measure passed the Senate unanimously last month, so the legislation now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon.
Rep. Anne Zerr, who sponsored the bill, said human trafficking is a problem in Missouri. She said there have been examples of heinous crimes in recent years and that legislation would help.
"We're going to catch more of these folks, we have the stiffer penalties to put them away for longer and in the end, it will reduce the instances of it happening in Missouri," said Zerr, R-St. Charles.
The legislation also would allow the state Department of Public Safety to develop procedures for identifying trafficking victims and training programs to help educate officials about existing state and federal laws and how to assist victims.
Rep. Jason Kander said increasing possible state prison sentences to match the potential federal penalties could boost the number of law officers investigating and prosecuting human trafficking.
"It's just flat out more people working on the issue, more law enforcement agencies making it a priority because now they have something they can do about it," said Kander, D-Kansas City.