Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley on Monday will unveil new initiatives to combat human trafficking.
Hawley, a Republican, said in a phone call that his office would establish a “new unit of prosecutors and investigators that will go after trafficking crimes” and that he will lead a state task force to review the issue.
“This problem is not confined to far off places overseas,” Hawley said. “It’s not even confined to urban areas like Kansas City or St. Louis.”
The FBI arrested two men in Columbia Thursday for allegedly transporting three victims across state lines for sexual activity by coercion or enticement, including a 17-year-old runaway from Wisconsin. Hawley called the case a perfect example of how these things are happening in the middle of Missouri.
In October, an FBI-led investigation of an alleged sex trafficking ring in Kansas and Missouri led to the rescue of five teens and four women and the arrest of 26 people involved in the ring as customers or traffickers. In a separate case, a Topeka man was sentenced in February to four years in prison for his involvement in a sex trafficking ring that spanned Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
Hawley said the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified more than 31,000 reports of trafficking in the United States since 2007, including about 2,000 in Missouri.
He lamented that Missouri has had only a handful of prosecutions in that time. The cases are difficult for law enforcement to identify, he said, and victims often are reluctant to come forward.
“There is a crying need for leadership at the state level to bring together law enforcement and to bring together victims groups,” Hawley said.
He said that it remains to be seen how many attorneys his office can dedicate but that it would be a priority as he reshuffles the attorney general’s office. He said his office would target both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, the practice in which a person, in many cases an immigrant, is coerced into working for a low or nonexistent wage.
“We’re going to use existing laws, but we’re going to do new things with it,” Hawley said. “We plan to announce creative new uses of Missouri law and interpretations of Missouri law.”