A dramatic case prosecutors are uncovering in Detroit highlights a new set of laws designed to combat Michigan's persistent increase in reported human trafficking cases.
Police uncovered a recent trafficking case almost by accident, as Tresa Baldas reported for the Detroit Free Press. While investigating an identity theft case in March, they entered a suburban Detroit home and found child pornography, a woman chained to a pole by the neck, and evidence of a web-based sex trafficking operation, prosecutors say.
Ryon Travis of Detroit, the defendant, says the victims — including the woman found in chains — are his four wives and seven children. During a March 23 hearing, in which the US District Court judge agreed to detain Mr. Travis pending trial, he pled not guilty and asked the judge to dismiss both his court-appointed lawyer and his case.
"You are a danger to children. You are a danger to women. And you are a danger to people who are helpless in your presence," responded Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub, according to DFP.
The number of human trafficking cases reported in Michigan more than doubled between 2012 and 2015, according to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, operated by the Polaris Project. With 152 reported cases in 2015, including 122 in sex trafficking, Michigan had the eighth-highest number of human trafficking cases in the United States.
"Sex trafficking occurs all around us, and the victims are sometimes hiding in plain sight," US Attorney Barbara McQuade told DFP. "The victims often feel powerless to flee because the trafficker exerts power over them — physical violence, threats, drugs, fear of arrest, or even shame."
The state's proximity to Canada, major water routes, and particularly vulnerable tribal communities have made Michigan attractive to human traffickers, according to a report by Emily Proctor at Michigan State University.
Almost 90 percent of Michigan's human trafficking victims are female, and about one-third are children.
State Sen. Judy Emmons (R) has championed the fight against trafficking in the Michigan legislature. She hosted a forum series around the state where survivors shared their stories.
"The biggest obstacle we still face in the fight against human trafficking is awareness," she said in a press release. "This modern-day slavery remains in the shadows."
Michigan has passed a slew of new laws to target human trafficking, DFP reported. A six-year statute of limitations has been removed for those accused of abusing children through prostitution, forced labor, and pornography. The penalties for those convicted have also increased, and anyone who traffics minors can be charged with kidnapping.
The state has also changed its laws to treat those affected as victims, clearing them of crimes related to prostitution and giving them easier paths to seeking compensation from traffickers.
Another law supports a human trafficking task force to coordinate the efforts of the state, federal government, and other organizations, and to urge the public to send in tips if they believe they suspect a human trafficking case.