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Connecticut prosecutors, judges, advocates work to broaden awareness of sex trafficking

New Haven Register - 7/17/2017

July 17--NEW HAVEN -- As Erin Williamson stood in a Superior Court courtroom on June 8 to talk about one of the most traumatized young women she has ever met, she did so for the benefit of the judge, she said.

Williamson is the survivor care coordinator for Love146, an anti-trafficking organization that has helped more than 200 survivors of human trafficking or sexual abuse in the state since 2014. She's seen her fair share of traumatized victims.

"They're going to get other cases like this," Williamson said of why she wanted to speak on behalf of the alleged victim in the case against England Gamble at his sentencing on June 8. "It helps inform their work and their decision-making."

Advocates such as Williamson, state officials, prosecutors and judges are expanding the awareness of sex trafficking in the state, as a way to prevent it and to bring the weight of the law against those who perpetrate it.

Gamble was not sentenced on trafficking-in-persons charges but did get 15 years, suspended after eight served, for second-degree sexual assault. Williamson said she was involved with the case to support the victim and that a plea deal was struck -- and a trafficking charge was not sought -- to protect the victim from having to testify.

So, Williamson spoke on the young women's behalf at the sentencing, she said.

"Sometimes things remind her of the abuse she experienced and she doesn't realize it until it's too late," Williamson said in her testimony on June 8. "Her body is always alert, anticipating that at any moment she could be re-victimized... When discussing the impact these crimes have had on her life, (she) talks about how Mr. Gamble stole her childhood, forced her to engage in unspeakable acts, and forever changed the course of her life."

Informing every level of the justice system about the realities of human trafficking in the state is an ongoing battle felt by Williamson and others working to combat the crime.

"Trafficking cases are relatively new in terms of prosecution," she said. "We really don't have a lot of cases."

"We're kind of at the forefront of this issue in terms of prosecution and courts," Williamson added.

Legal change

Trafficking in persons became a felony charge in the state of Connecticut in 2006. But, it wasn't until 2016 that the state earned its first conviction on the charge.

"The law, the way it was written, was difficult for us to work with," said Brian Sibley, a senior assistant state's attorney.

One of the main problems, he said, was that the trafficking charge could only be proven if prosecutors could prove a victim was sold for sex twice. The current law takes that clause out and now mimics some of the federal language for sex-trafficking crimes, which Sibley said is a step in the right direction.

There are still differences, mainly in penalties. Under state law, the use of coercion to compel people to engage in prostitution or forced labor is a Class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The federal punishments are harsher, with the minimum sentence of 10 years for human trafficking of a minor and 15 years if that minor is under the age of 14.

According to Jillian Gilchrest, chairwoman of the state Trafficking in Persons Council, there were two arrests under the sex trafficking state statute in 2013, one in 2014, seven in 2015 and nine in 2016.

"It is frustrating," Gilchrest said. "All crimes are bad, but this is a very serious crime.

"If we are showing that the risk isn't that high, folks will continue to commit the crime," she said.

A big part of the problem, Gilchrest said, is lack of understanding of what human trafficking is and what it looks like, for prosecutors, judges and juries. Even when prosecutors are aware of what constitutes human trafficking, she believes they may be reluctant to bring charges out of fear that a jury will not understand the crime, she said.

Prosecutors, in an effort to protect victims, sometimes offer defendants plea bargains with lesser charges, she said, which is something she believes is used far too often to let a defendant off without a trafficking conviction.

But Sibley said that sometimes plea deals are struck because it's better to have the defendant behind bars, even for lesser charges, than dropping the case altogether to protect the victim.

"In proving a case to a jury, it can be difficult, especially if you have a fragile victim," he said. "You could do more harm by having the victim testify in court."

Gilchrest, as part of the Trafficking in Persons Council, seeks to work with legislators to find ways to better combat sex trafficking in Connecticut. In 2016, she celebrated a law requiring staff at hotels and motels to undergo awareness training on sex trafficking and to keep records of patrons at their establishments for at least six months, to assist law enforcement in tracking down potential traffickers.

This year, she has cause to celebrate another victory, as the legislature passed a bill that makes commercial sex abuse of a minor a state felony.

Dispelling myths

Sibley is an active member of the Human Trafficking Task Force that was started by the U.S. attorney's office in November 2015. The task force is a collaboration of federal and state prosecutors, the state Department of Children and Families, as well as federal and local law enforcement.

"It's not that (sex trafficking) is new," Sibley said. "It just wasn't recognized so readily."

As part of the task force, local law enforcement officers are getting more awareness training about what sex trafficking may look like, so they can better identify situations in which a minor has been a victim.

First and foremost, he said, "You can't have an underage prostitute."

This is because, if a minor were found performing sex work, it should be assumed that they are being sold to do so.

As awareness has grown, from public to law enforcement, and so has the number of referrals of potential minor sex-trafficking cases to the state Department of Children and Families. In 2016, there were 201 referrals.

Sibley said as the task force continues to develop and the partnerships grow, it is increasingly successful in spreading awareness and getting more charges filed against alleged traffickers.

"The partnership has worked well," he said. "If we have more eyes and ears open to it ... it broadens our ability to go after the problem."

But, the problem still remains that people believe sex trafficking to be a problem only for other countries, Sibley said. Another false belief is that sex trafficking means that a child was brought from another country to the U.S. to be sold for sex.

"The bulk of human trafficking is domestic," Sibley said. "It's happening right here in the community."

Because Sibley knows this, he's been putting in extra time to play an integral role in the task force and is in regular communication with police detectives and DCF about potential trafficking cases.

"When you have a child subjected to (the) violence of paid sex five to 10 times a day, those numbers add up horrendously," he said. "I have a passion for taking those folks off the street and putting them where they belong."

When Superior Court Judge Patrick Clifford sentenced England Gamble III on June 8 for second-degree sexual assault, he said he knew that the alleged victim in the case was happy with how the plea deal ultimately played out, according to a transcript from the hearing.

"It certainly isn't going to make her whole, we know that," Clifford said. "But, this certainly was despicable treatment of a child who clearly had her own issues and she was a perfect victim for, unfortunately, somebody like you and you manipulated and exploited ... a troubled youth to your sexual perversions and that's the problem."

Williamson immediately requested a copy of the transcript of this passage because she said it was proof that Clifford understood the magnitude of the crime she believes Gamble committed.

"I was moved by the words of the judge in this case," Williamson said. "You could tell that he got it."

"We need judges like that," she said.

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(c)2017 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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