Illinois trends ahead in cracking down on sex trafficking

A national study has given Illinois a “B” grade for its handling of human trafficking cases.

Illinois, for example, is among just four states with laws that allow the judicial system to expunge the convictions of sex trafficking victims who were found guilty of crimes such as prostitution before authorities learned they were forced into the illegal activity. The others are Maryland, Nevada and New York.

Locally, McHenry County has issued charges under trafficking laws, which just last week resulted in seven-year prison terms for two women convicted of involuntary servitude of a minor.

Some states have taken aggressive steps to strengthen their laws, according to the report released last week by advocacy group Shared Hope International. Fifteen states now allow victims to seek civil damages from their traffickers in court.

But 41 states, according to the report, have failed to adopt strong penalties against human trafficking.

Four states – Maine, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming – have yet to impose any specific restrictions on the crime.

Advocates say a patchwork of differing state laws makes it difficult for authorities to target the crime.

Victims sometimes are smuggled in from outside the U.S., but many began as young runaways or simply needing money. Human traffickers target men, women and children for forced labor or services, while sex traffickers make their victims work in the illegal sex trade. The crimes range from smuggling immigrants into the U.S. to work in restaurants or homes to forcing young women into prostitution.

Federal authorities can prosecute traffickers under the Trafficking Victims Protections Act, enacted in 2000, which carries stiff penalties. The law also created a new visa allowing victims of the crime to become temporary U.S. residents. But federal prosecutors have limited resources and often have to rely on the states to crack down on the crime.

Lynne Johnson, policy and advocacy director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, said Illinois is a leader in transforming its response to sex trafficking, which is reflected in the high marks in the evaluation.

The Illinois Safe Children Act, for example, decriminalizes prostitution for people under age 18.

“Young people who have been prostituted should be considered crime victims and people worthy of services and assistance,” Johnson said.

But there still are improvements that can be made, she said, such as better services and specialized care to help people leave the sex trade.

The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation also is pushing a program called End Demand Illinois, which aims to shift the focus from the arrest and rearrest of women and girls in prostitution, instead focusing on pimps and johns who create the demand for the sex trade.

The human trafficking code in Illinois only recently has begun to be used, Johnson said.

“It was created in 2006 and hadn’t been used until about a year ago,” she said. “We just started getting convictions over the last six or so months.”

One of those convictions was in McHenry County, which Johnson said was the only county in Illinois besides Cook to charge under the trafficking code, Johnson said.

In that case, Kari D. “Slim” Knox, 37, and Antwanette “Peaches” Atkins, 44, each were sentenced last week to seven years in prison for involuntary servitude of a minor. At their trial in August, they were acquitted of juvenile pimping and child pornography charges.

The victim, from Kansas, was 16 at the time of the trial and 14 at the time of the incident. She testified that she got into a car with a man whom she had met through MySpace and drove to Illinois, arriving at his Lake in the Hills home on New Year’s Eve 2009.

That man, Donald R. “Juan” Jones, also faces charges, but his case is being handled separately.

Under Illinois law, sex trafficking of minors does not require proof that force, fraud or coercion was used to cause minors to engage in commercial sex acts.

That was a fact addressed at Atkins and Knox’s trial.

Neither woman actually traveled to Kansas to pick up the girl. And, in fact, neither woman profited from it, either; the money instead was turned over to the alleged pimp, Jones, according to trial testimony.

Researchers say that on any given day in the Chicago area, there are 16,000 women involved in prostitution, said Kristin Claes, communications manager for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

“And that’s a low estimate,” Claes said. “The high estimate is upwards of 25,000.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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