A new state law can help authorities crack down on those who exploit others for sex or labor -- a problem that is more prevalent than most think, according to several elected officials who spoke at a meeting Friday of the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Advocates say the law, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley in December, more clearly defines human trafficking and allows authorities to hold more people accountable for it, even if they're indirectly involved.
"It does happen in United States, and it does happen in South Carolina," S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said at the meeting at Church of the Palms United Methodist in Okatie. "As a society, we look at it like we used to look at domestic violence -- it was a dark, little secret nobody wanted to talk about."
Recent cases have made the issue difficult to ignore.
Thirteen suspects were indicted and more than 40 people accused of involvement in sex trafficking Jan. 11, when federal authorities held a press conference in Savannah to describe their investigation of a ring that stretched through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
The business allegedly lured young women from Mexico to the United States by promising a better life. Instead, many of them were forced to have sex as often as 30 times a day, 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone told the group. Beaufort County authorities were not involved in the investigation, but Stone said he read the 21-page indictment.
"They're in slavery in modern times," added state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, one of 21 sponsors of the bill Haley signed into law. "It was something that was happening right under our noses."
The new law defines human trafficking as any operation subjecting a person to forced sex, labor, involuntary servitude or debt bondage by using threats or coercion, blackmail, drugs or destruction of identification records.
Those charged with trafficking humans in more than one county could also face the state grand jury, which can be used to gather more information for ongoing investigations.
The law also provides a shield for victims -- their character or past sexual experiences won't be examined during a trial, and they can seek restitution from their oppressors.
Now, first-time conviction of human trafficking is a felony with as many as 15 years in prison. A second conviction comes with as many as 30 years, and subsequent offenses are punishable by as many 45 years. An additional 15 years can be added if victims are younger than 18.