In 2018, law enforcement launched the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task to combat prostitution and exploitation in the St. Cloud area.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall says the criminal justice system decided to focus on prostitution because so many crimes seem connected to the activity.
“This was something that we were seeing drive-by shootings. We were seeing assaults, just some very focused activity and commonly related to drug bills. We’re seeing in the traffickers that we’re finding now because we’re focused on it, you know, looking for people commonly selling drugs and people at the same time and interchangeably.”
She says residents are the main reason the task force has been successful.
“This has provided a place for people who have seen this going on for years to actually provide that information directly to law enforcement. We have people telling us we know this has been going on out of this house. It’s been going on above this business. We have had between 300 and 400 calls. And we’ve been able actually to make some of those into investigations. And we’ve just had a phenomenal public response to this.”
The task force started with two full-time investigators and has since added a third.
Kendall says teenage girls are especially vulnerable to getting pushed into the sex trade and talked about spotting a potential victim.
“They’re going to school, they’re living at home, but they’re coming back home on their lunch break and turning these tricks for the traffickers, literally right under the nose of parents and the school. ”
Some of the things to look for in a teenage victim include the teen suddenly having money; she’s got a new hairdo, and her nails are done.
She has things that she couldn’t afford independently, and she has a new older boyfriend.
Officials say that’s how it starts with the recruitment of, especially teenage girls.
Kendall says prostitution has become a way to easy access in the 21st century thanks to the internet.
“This goes on every day. We’re seeing buyers that we’ve caught now for the third time. This is so common people simply ordering it up and making these arrangements to do these things online.”
Because of all the changes in technology, the laws need to catch up as well.
Kendall says a bill before the State Legislature would recognize sex trafficking for the crime it truly is.
“It would identify sex trafficking as the violent crime that it is. There’s a special section of Minnesota law that recognizes certain things as having a larger public safety impact than others. And we need to add sex trafficking to that list.”
The law would also make making arrangements to meet with a prostitute online a gross misdemeanor. As it stands now, it’s a misdemeanor.
There are also some limitations on sentencing for solicitation of children. Right now, that’s only a three-year felony. And prosecutors would like to make that a five-year felony.
The bill is included in the massive Public Safety Omnibus Bill.
The St. Cloud area has developed resources to help women escape human trafficking.
Women and their children can turn to the Terebinth Refuge in Waite Park for help.
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