Supporters of a human-trafficking bill that has languished in committee for about a year are optimistic about the proposal's future after a hearing in Columbia this week.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee's Criminal Laws Subcommittee debated the merits this week of a bill criminalizing human trafficking. It was introduced in February 2011 by state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach.
The committee did not recommend the bill to the Judiciary Committee but did agree to consider revising the language of the proposal to be consistent with a companion bill introduced last month in the Senate.
For human trafficking advocates, the hearing was a step in the right direction, said Betty Houbion, one of the bill's supporters.
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"There is finally some movement on this bill and that's a positive sign," Houbion said. "This law is something our state needs. We're talking about the buying and selling of other human beings. That's really what this is."
South Carolina was identified by the nonprofit Polaris Project of Washington, D.C., as one of nine states whose laws failed to adequately address human trafficking.
Hardwick's proposal and the companion Senate bill have garnered the support of the state's top lawmakers, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.
In a conference call last week with reporters, Wilson and S.C. Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel listed beefing up the state's human trafficking law as being on their 10-point legislative wish list.
"These are men and women in your community who are victims and are perpetrators of this heinous crime," Wilson was quoted as saying. "This is a first step in tightening up those laws."
Houbion said the ugly nature of human trafficking is one of many reasons the issue has been on the back burner in South Carolina.
"People sometimes don't want to hear about it," she said. "It's such a horrible crime but it really does exist in this country and in our state, with all that we have."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.