Schuette combats human trafficking

Published 7:53 pm Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jose Estrada, co-owner of Jose's Cafe in Scottdale, welcomed Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. (Leader photo/JOHN EBY)

Jose Estrada, co-owner of Jose’s Cafe in Scottdale, welcomed Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. (Leader photo/JOHN EBY)

ST. JOSEPH — Human Traffickers take advantage of technology to hide in the shadows while forcing victims into prostitution or domestic servitude.

Modern-day slavery is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, after drug trafficking, according to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Victims are in bondage through force, fraud or coercion, solely for the purpose of sex or labor exploitation. Children are especially vulnerable.

According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, 2,515 incidents of human trafficking were recorded nationally between January 2008 and June 2010.

Of those incidents, 1,016 involved sexual exploitation of a child, 1,218 involved sexual exploitation of adults and 350 involved labor trafficking.

Michigan law banning human trafficking went into effect Aug. 24, 2006, and was strengthened in 2010, with those changes effective April 1, 2011.

Updates included adding human trafficking to the list of predicate offenses that fall under the state racketeering law, authorizing additional court-ordered restitution for trafficking victims and stronger penalties.

Schuette came into office with the issue on his radar after “listening hard” for two years while campaigning around the state.

Upon taking office in 2011, he launched the state’s first human trafficking unit.

He is one of 10 U.S. attorneys general selected to lead the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) Presidential Initiative on Combating Human Trafficking, called Pillars of Hope.

“What’s happening today, in my opinion, human trafficking is a new crime with new technology. The internet is used like a club that is just as predatory as turning into the wrong part of town. You click on a link, stumble upon an advertisement for employment that might look attractive, like your online friends might not be who they say they are,” which MTV turned into a hit television show, “Catfish.”

“People use the internet as a ploy to come for a job,” he said. “Maybe you’re a troubled youth who thinks they’re going to help and take care of you.”

As attorney general, Schuette serves as a “voice for victims.” As the father of a daughter, he is especially sensitive to young women “falling prey to false promises.”

In March, he convened the first Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking.

His office obtained five convictions and is awaiting the panel’s recommendations due in October.

“This is not a coffee table book, it’s an action agenda,” Schuette said, with six months of meetings reviewing five areas: legislation and policy, raising public awareness, professional training, victim services and data collection.”

He talked with Leader Publications Thursday afternoon about the panel, whose members include Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, in Van Buren County.

“You’ve got a nice group of legislators down here — Dave Pagel, John Proos, Al Pscholka, Tonya and Matt Lori,” Schuette said, “and (Berrien County) Clerk Sharon Tyler,” Niles’ former state legislator.

“For me, it’s always been about service to my state,” Schuette said. “If you asked me 10 years ago if I would ever run for attorney general, I would have politely said no, but this is where the road’s taken me. I didn’t have a game plan to be congressman, ag director, senator, or judge.”

He seeks re-election in 2014.

“My experience as a judge helps me immensely as attorney general because the Court of Appeals hears everything under the sun, civil to criminal and everything in between.”

Schuette is also working this summer with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Michigan State Police Director Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue and State Supt. of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan on steering OK-2-SAY, a confidential 24/7 hotline and educational student safety initiative, through the Legislature so it can be rolled out this fall for the 2013-2014 academic year.

It’s cleared the Senate and is pending in the House.

According to the U.S. Secret Service, for 81 percent of violent incidents in U.S. schools, someone other than the attacker had knowledge of the plan, but failed to report it.

OK-2-SAY will discourage the persistent culture of silence among students who fear reporting threatening behavior will lead to retaliation or result in stigmatization as a “snitch or narc. We want to have a new conversation,” he said.

Schuette said Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz testified on behalf of the initiative.