Sex trafficking, a crime once in the shadows in the United States, has burgeoned through websites exploiting a loophole in federal law.
But that loophole would close under a proposal by Sen. Mark Kirk, R.-Ill, who wants to make it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to sell or commercially promote sex-trafficking ads.
Kirk announced his proposal Monday at his downtown offices, joined by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Kirk is set to introduce the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act — the SAVE Act — this week. It would target one of the nation’s largest such sites, backpage.com, which the National Association of Attorneys General estimates is responsible for more than 70 percent of prostitution advertising in the country.
“The president recently said that human trafficking should be called by its true name: modern slavery,” Kirk said.
The SAVE Act would lift current protections off such Internet sites by making it a felony to sell or commercially promote ads facilitating kidnapping, trafficking or exploitation of children; child sexual abuse; and all illegal sex, pimping, prostitution, and sex trafficking.
Current law puts legal liability on the person posting to the Internet, not on the website. Pressure from states’ attorneys general and advocacy groups forced Craigslist to shut down its controversial “adult services” section in 2010, leading to a spike in traffic at backpage.com’s adult services section.
“Two top human traffickers in the country do this through their company they partially own, called backpage.com,” said Kirk, identifying its owners as Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin of Phoenix, Ariz. “By his own admission, Michael Lacey has admitted to making about $31 million off this business.”
Attempts to reach officials at backpage.com Monday were unsuccessful.
“The Internet has become a playground for pedophiles and for sex traffickers,” said Alvarez, who was responsible for drafting and getting passed Illinois’ Safe Children’s Act in 2010, at the time making Illinois among only 10 states with laws targeting human trafficking in the country. More states have since adopted such laws.
“These individuals and conglomerates advertise and sell children 24 hours a day without any fear or measure of accountability,” Alvarez said. “They earn their profits, support the criminal activity and then turn a blind eye to our children who are being pimped, prostituted, raped and tortured.”
Kirks’s proposal would allow federal prosecutors to shut down ads on websites found to promote underage sex, with sentences for conviction of up to five years.
Other proposed legislation already introduced include “safe harbor” provisions to treat arrested minors as victims and help them leave the trade, and a national strategy to combat human trafficking.
According to the University of Illinois, 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls annually are involved in the illegal sex trade in metropolitan Chicago; a third of those get snared by age 15, and 62 percent by age 18.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also has been active in helping local victims. He supports the legislation and was to attend Monday but was ill, a Kirk spokesman said.
“The SAVE Act blocks loopholes that the people running these prostitution rings use to protect themselves,” Kirk said.
“The Communications Decency Act loophole basically says anything goes on the Internet. Everything does not go on the Internet. The government has a significant role in protecting children from involuntary servitude.”