Human trafficking is an issue in Tulare County.

“We know that it exists. However, it’s very much an underworld and under reported crime.

It’s very difficult to recognize,” said Capt. Mike Boudreaux who oversees the investigation department in the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department.

As to the prosecution of such crimes, it is almost nonexistent.

“It’s relatively new. I don’t know if we’ve ever prosecuted one,” stated Boudreaux.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) reported that there were five calls of human trafficking in Tulare County in 2011. Nationwide 19,427 calls were made that same year.  

Human Trafficking forms can be varied from the sex trade, prostitutes etc, to slave labor, like those who work to pay off debts. One form of the latter pertains to marijuana busts.

“There are issues with marijuana and marijuana traffic. People entering the country illegally as part of payment work in the marijuana fields or the drug trade,” added Boudreaux. “ We are stepping into the realm of asking questions like are you here willingly, are you paying off a debt, who brought you here?”

These questions help law enforcement to determine if the workers are victims of human trafficking. Sometimes though the issue of deportation can scare the potential victims.

However, the department needs the public’s help.

“First and foremost we want people to come forward without the fear of prosecution. The issue of deportation takes a back seat,” explained Boudreaux who pointed out that the victims do not have to be illegal. “Anytime you’re using a human being to gain money through criminal means it is human trafficking.”

During 2011-2012 no human trafficking cases were filed with the Tulare County District Attorney’s office.

However, Timothy Ward, assistant district attorney, pointed out a federal human trafficking case in Visalia this past March which was pursued by the Benjamin B. Wagner, a United States Attorney of the Eastern District of California, against Alejandro Manuel Perez, 26, of Visalia. That case is pending.  

To combat this kind of crime, the Tulare County District Attorney’s office, after receiving approval from the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, submitted a grant application to the state for $400,000 to help fight human trafficking. If approved, the money from the Office for Victims of Crime, will be used in conjunction with Family Services of Tulare County for the hiring of one District Attorney staff member who will provide case management services.

The funds will also be used for other services like outreach and educational materials, training and evaluation.

“It’s part of a collaborative effort to have local resources work with the federal agencies to identify human trafficking,” said Ward. “The money will be used to train all of the local law enforcement agencies on what to look for at a local level and what to look for as first responders.”

If a resident suspects that there is a case of human trafficking in his/her neighborhood or community Ward urges that person to call the local law enforcement agency with the appropriate jurisdiction.

To strengthen the consequences on human trafficking perpetrators Proposition 35 or the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, is on the upcoming Nov. 6 ballot. This proposition aims, among other things; to increase prison time and fines for those that are convicted of human trafficking crimes, requires that the monies collected be used for victims services and law enforcement, and for persons convicted of sex trafficking to be registered as a sexual offender.

Currently, the law in California requires that those who are convicted of labor trafficking to be sentenced to a maximum of five years and fined up to $100,000 for sex trafficking of a minor. If passed the prop would extend the maximum sentence to 12 years and the maximum fine of up to  $1.5 million for all human trafficking offenses.

For more information on human trafficking visit http://www.polarisproject.org. To find out more on Prop 35 visit http://www.caseact.org/

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