Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering several pieces of legislation aimed at thwarting human trafficking, a fast growing criminal enterprise, which a 2013 report from The Abell Foundation called "a problem spreading beyond the grasp of police, prosecutors and social work agencies.
Maryland has already committed to dedicating resources to studying human trafficking for what will be three years in May.
"It's been there all along. We're just now starting to recognize and expose it," said Nick Weikel, a contributor to the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force .
There are anywhere from 4 million to 27 million people – men, women and children – who are coerced into modern-day slavery around the world, according to a report by Polaris Project . Maryland is a projected hot zone for trafficking given its location along the Interstate 95 corridor; connecting the state to New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
WATCH 6PM THURSDAY | ABC2 reporter Cheryl Conner interviews a Baltimore woman who survived a multi-state sex trafficking operation.
"Along I-95 come rest stops, truck stops and bus stations. All are prime locations for exploitation," according to The Abell Foundation's report. "The National Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates 70 percent of human trafficking incidents occur at truck stops. It's where predatory pimps make contact with desperate girls running from intolerable home lives, and thus begin the journey into human trafficking."
More than 400 officials attended the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention Conference in May 2012 to address strategies to combat "computer-savvy pimps and johns" that have changed the way law enforcement thinks of human trafficking.
"It's no longer a situation where you go the wrong side of the tracks…The majority of it is online," Weikel said.
Weikel, who also works with Howard County AGAST (Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking) , said a non-exhaustive survey of a single website yielded 90 advertisements for women available for commercial sex in just Howard County alone.
"And we didn't even look at the male escort sites," Weikel said. "It's the pool where we find individuals who are being trafficked."
Maryland lawmakers have so far entered five measures in the 2014 General Assembly that would increase the penalties associated with human trafficking, provide training for law enforcement and advance the mission of studying the crime.
Two bills pertaining to crimes related to human trafficking are being introduced for a second time.
Del. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) has proposed raising the punishment for abducting a child under the age of 16 from a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine to a felony offense with a maximum of 30 years in prison. Between 12 and 14 years old is the average age of people who are forced into prostitution, according to the Polaris Project report on human trafficking statistics.
Hearings for Lee's bill have been scheduled for 1 p.m. Feb. 18 in the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Sen. Jennie Forehand (D-Montgomery) is the lead sponsor for a bill that would make human trafficking a felony for pimps who employ individuals under the age of 21 without having to prove force, fraud or coercion.
The current law states human trafficking is only a felony offense for minors under the age of 18. Trafficking of a person between the ages of 18-21 is currently a misdemeanor.
"Previously, the General Assembly has passed legislation to raise the ‘legal age' for three activities: to require that anyone running for the General Assembly be 21; to raise the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21; and to raise the age to purchase and drink alcohol from 18 to 21. In each case, the General Assembly made a judgment call about the maturity and capacity of individuals under the age of 21," Forehand said at hearing in Annapolis.
Forehand continued: "Cases involving 18 to 20-year-old victims are hard to prosecute since the penalty is only the lesser misdemeanor-level crime. According to the fiscal note for this bill, there were two convictions for misdemeanor human trafficking in Maryland in 2013. There was only one felony human trafficking conviction (possibly a minor). Most trafficking of a minor cases, because they are easier to prove in court, typically get taken over by federal prosecutors because of the higher penalties under federal law."
Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) has introduced a resolution that formally requests the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force to perform a specific study and develop a recommendation by a specific date.
Lawmakers are acting on the recommendations from The Abell Foundation, which outlines five recommendations to protect young people from sex trafficking: provide more training to law enforcement, work directly with runaways, help create stronger
legislation, involve hotels and provide more resources for survivors of sex trafficking.
Del. Steven Schuh (R-Anne Arundel) has introduced legislation that aims to develop specialized training for police, prosecutors, public defenders, juvenile detention center staff and others to effectively address human trafficking needs.
"The problem is that in Maryland there is no uniform statewide curriculum for training police and prosecutors for how to approach human trafficking crimes," Schuh said.
Some departments have training, while others do not. It creates an issue where officers who make busts for human trafficking could mistakenly charge victims with prostitution or pimps with lesser crimes.
"It requires a lot of specialized training to differentiate victims and perpetrators and willing participants," Schuh said. "I think this is an extremely important basic step. They are extremely enthusiastic. They want this training."
The Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force reports there are about 293,000 American youth at risk for commercial sex exploitation, with an estimated less than 1 percent conviction rate for traffickers.
"We have made it a priority in Maryland to pursue criminals who lure or coerce children in prostitution," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in The Abell Foundation's report,
For example, four men and a woman are facing life in prison for allegedly forcing a 14-year-old girl into prostitution.
The group posted sexually explicit photos of the girl on online commercial sex advertisements. They advised her of different pricing for different sex acts. And they transported to her to hotels in Towson to meet "johns" for sex, according to court documents released in January.
Kenneth Ronald Robinson, 52, of Baltimore, Eric Evans, 38, of Baltimore, Jeffrey Clark, 43, of Nottingham, Craig Judy, 29, of Baltimore and Cheralyn Crawford, 25, of Baltimore face a maximum of life in prison.
The late January indictment is one of the most recent, high-profile cases of human trafficking in Maryland. It does not however address Weikel's biggest concern moving forward as Maryland commits to eliminating sex trafficking in the Free State.
"Sometimes I feel like we're trying to plug holes in a leaky ship," Weikel said. "We really need to start looking at where at this water is coming from. It's coming from the consumers of commercial sex."
The next step, he said, should be to debate increasing penalties for johns.
"We have way too many consumers who view what they're doing as harmless," he said.