Pa. House panel advances bills expanding penalties for human trafficking

    The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

    The House Judiciary Committee has advanced a slate of proposals expanding criminal penalties for human trafficking.

    The seven bills, all sponsored by Republican lawmakers, passed unanimously during a committee meeting Tuesday morning.

    The bills will:

    • Let experts testify in court on the impact and dynamics of sexual exploitation
    • Prevent the use of a victim’s sexual history in a defense against trafficking charges
    • Expand what is unlawful contact with a minor and the crimes that require state counseling for sex offenders to both include include human trafficking and incest-related charges.
    • Have courts consider strangulation and human trafficking charges during a child custody case
    • Make it a felony to traffic infants

    The committee also approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, increasing the penalties for human traffickers and an individual who solicits the services of a victim of human trafficking.

    For example, the penalty for trafficking or soliciting a minor will become a “super felony,” punishable by a minimum of 40 years in prison.

    The minimum fines for trafficking would also double from $500 for any offense to $1,000 for a first offense. Minimum fines for subsequent offenses would also dramatically expand to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively, with the penalties funding human trafficking enforcement.

    Phillips-Hill’s unanimously passed the Senate in November.

    “This issue affects every corner of our commonwealth and I am grateful that my colleagues joined me in standing with the victims of human trafficking to fight this form of modern-day slavery,” Philips-Hill said at the time.

    A 2012 report by the Joint State Government Commission found that “Pennsylvania is a source, destination and pass-through state for trafficking in persons.”

    The report cited a need to increase individual penalties for human trafficking, add “penalties for business entities, including license revocation and forfeiture of contracts” involved in trafficking, increase first responder training and expand resources for victims.

    But the General Assembly’s focus on adding new crimes to the books has drawn general criticism from some criminal justice groups. 

    The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found in a report last year that the number of crimes on the books have nearly tripled over the past decade.

    “This bloating of the criminal code undermines a person’s right to a fair trial and diminishes the power of judges in exchange for more power in the hands of prosecutors, who use the threat of many charges to strong arm people in plea deals,” the ACLU said in releasing the report.