State Rep. Eileen Kowall on Human Trafficking

  By  Steve Thorpe

Legal News
House Bill 5025, which is part of a package of legislation addressing the issue of human trafficking, would amend Public Act 213 of 1965, which establishes the criteria for expungement of some criminal convictions. The bill would allow a victim of human trafficking to expunge multiple convictions under the prostitution statutes and would also exempt the victim from registration as a sex offender if an expunged conviction was for a crime requiring registration. State Rep. Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake Township, is a sponsor of the bill.
Thorpe: Tell us about the problem the legislation addresses? How bad is it in Michigan?
Kowall: The number of individuals that are affected by human trafficking will always be unknown. Those that are forced or coerced into the sex trade are oftentimes convicted of multiple prostitution-related offenses before they can break away from their traffickers. This legislation allows individuals that have been sexually trafficked to apply to expunge the charges. The crimes that they were forced to commit continue to haunt them, making it difficult to fully recover and fashion a new future.
Thorpe: This bill recognizes some major changes in the way we view at least some forms of prostitution. How did your own views evolve?
Kowall: Most people are unaware or do not recognize what human trafficking really is. I was blissfully ignorant myself until a few years ago and then, the more I delved into it, the more horrified I became. Trafficking is an insidious evil from which no zip code or social status is immune. The victim-centered approach this package of legislation embraces makes significant strides in shifting the ways these victims have been viewed. HB 5025 allows victims to remove the most stigmatized charges on their records and is a vital tool to allow victims to rebuild their lives.
Thorpe: Sponsorship and support for the bill crossed the aisle and it is definitely a bipartisan effort. How was the package crafted?
Kowall: This package is a direct result of the Human Trafficking Commission, which was led by the attorney general and Rep. Kurt Heise. Over the better part of the year, there were numerous meetings with stakeholders whose diverse interests across the board shaped the bills. Each aspect of legislation was thoroughly vetted by legislators, prosecutors, the AG’s office, victim advocates, victim service providers, and law enforcement to name a few.
Thorpe: The victims of human trafficking are sometimes very young. How does the legislative package address that?
Kowall: This package includes numerous protections for minors that have been trafficked. One of the most important recommendations to come out of the Commission’s report was the need for safe harbor provisions. HB 5012, which I sponsored, provides a rebuttable presumption that minors caught in the act of prostitution are victims in need of services.  It then sets up a process for law enforcement to place these victims in temporary protective services through the Dept. of Human Services. HB 5026, Rep. Heise sponsor, is the other half of this equation. It sets up the process for probate court to consider designating these juveniles as dependent minors or order to provide victims with the services they need. This step is absolutely vital in order to stop the cycle of re-victimization.
Thorpe: How would an individual go about applying for relief under the law, if passed and signed?
Kowall: This bill would allow a person who is convicted of a prostitution offense as a result of being trafficked to apply to have that conviction set aside. Under this legislation an individual would be able to apply to have more than one conviction set aside.
Thorpe: What other measures would you like to see eventually adopted to address this problem?
Kowall: Right now, there are more than 20 pieces of legislation that have been introduced to combat human trafficking in Michigan. However, it is still unclear just how prevalent the problem is in our state. 
Michigan is both a source and transit state when it comes to human trafficking, and individuals, both citizens and foreign nationals, are exploited throughout the state.  Despite this, there is a severe lack of Michigan-specific data, so we do not truly know how many individuals are being trafficked within the state at any given time. 
As we continue to address this problem, I would like to see a focus on uncovering that data, but also on finding more and better ways to fund services for victims. Until we have eradicated the scourge of human trafficking, we must do all we can to help its victims recover from their old lives and find a way to move forward.