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Lawmakers aim to raise human trafficking penalties

Mississippi lawmakers are seeking to tighten the state’s laws against human trafficking.

Judiciary committees Tuesday approved House Bill 673 and Senate Bill 2719.

The measures are meant to raise penalties and tighten rules against forcing someone to work against their will. It especially aims to crack down on forced prostitution of girls under 18.

“Mississippi has been working for years to revise and improve its human trafficking law,” said Assistant Attorney General Heather Wagner. “This is not something that happens in other parts of the world, it happens in Mississippi.”

The measures say those who benefit financially from exploitation, not just those who force the labor, can be prosecuted. For trafficking of minors, they impose a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison. Fines could range from $50,000 to $500,000. Wagner said making the fines stiffer is meant to make sex trafficking less attractive as a way for criminals to make money.

“Once the demand reduces, people go elsewhere to make money,” Wagner said.

Officials can’t say how many victims of human trafficking are present in Mississippi. Biloxi police have investigated several cases, and two men were indicted in federal court in Jackson in October for child sex trafficking.

The bill also says that people being held against their will won’t be prosecuted for prostitution. Sandy Middleton, the executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, highlighted that as an important change.