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Dakotas human trafficking laws lacking, group says: Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law sets standard for others

FNS Photo by Ryan Babb U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., speaks Wednesday in Washington, D.C., during a discussion of state ratings on human trafficking laws released by Polaris.

WASHINGTON — North Dakota and South Dakota have the nation’s weakest laws on human trafficking, according to a set of ratings released Wednesday by a nonprofit organization fighting modern-day slavery.

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Minnesota, meanwhile, was among the states highlighted by Polaris as a leader in passing new laws to address sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, said there has been a lot of momentum at federal and state levels to adopt new laws on human trafficking since the group began rating the states in 2011.

Thirty-nine states earned the organization’s Tier 1 rating this year, compared to 11 who met the top criteria when the group began doing the ratings in 2011.

The ratings are based on 10 categories of laws that Polaris says are “critical to a basic legal framework that combats human trafficking, punishes traffickers and supports survivors.” Examples include:

- Provisions that criminalize sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

- Safe Harbor laws that recognize exploited minors as crime victims rather than treating them as criminals.

- Laws that mandate training for law enforcement.

- Vacating criminal convictions for sex trafficking victims.

Minnesota, which implemented a Safe Harbor law on Aug. 1, had 10 out of 12 possible points and was among the Tier 1 states. Wisconsin, also a Tier 1 state, scored 7 points.

North Dakota and South Dakota were the lone states in Tier 3 with four points each. The category said the states have “made nominal efforts to combat human trafficking” and should actively work to improve and implement their laws.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem called Polaris “a good organization” but said North Dakota would have scored higher and ranked as a Tier 2 state had Polaris not incorrectly docked points in certain categories.

For example, the state lost a point for not having a statute that allows for the forfeiture of assets or proceeds from human trafficking, but Stenehjem noted that such a provision already exists in state law.

Polaris also downgraded North Dakota and South Dakota for not having laws that require law enforcement training on human trafficking.

However, North Dakota has had human trafficking training sessions for law enforcement, and South Dakota recently hosted a human trafficking conference that was attended by many officers.

“A lot of these things are things that we are already doing,” Stenehjem said.

Tim Purdon, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, called the findings in the report “very troubling.”

“This study by Polaris shows that our state and local law enforcement partners and victim service providers desperately need action taken so that they can have access to the modern tools that are necessary to fight this terrible crime,” Purdon said.

North Dakota’s Uniform Law Commission plans to introduce new legislation next year that would address many of the categories, including establishing a Safe Harbor law, requiring the display of a human trafficking hotline and allowing victims access to civil damages.

Stenehjem said he agreed with Polaris that the state needs a Safe Harbor law, and he plans to propose additional victim assistance services in the next legislative session.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said during a discussion of the ratings Wednesday that she’s pleased to see South Dakota move up from an even lower rating in a previous survey. However, she said there’s more work to do on both federal and state levels.

In South Dakota, Noem said she and others like to see human trafficking cases prosecuted at the federal level because the penalties are more severe.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who also spoke during the event, said she is working with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and others to advocate for a federal Safe Harbor law that is modeled after Minnesota’s law.

Forum News Service reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report.