Human trafficking seems the kind of big city, Third World crime that shouldn't concern us here in Beaufort County and South Carolina.
But as a recent federal indictment in Savannah and a guilty plea from a Beaufort restaurant owner show, we are not immune.
Fortunately, law enforcement officials in South Carolina now have a critical tool to fight modern-day slavery -- a state law against human trafficking. South Carolina had been identified by the nonprofit Polaris Project of Washington as one of nine states whose laws failed to adequately address human trafficking.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone talked about the need for the law at a recent meeting of the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking. (The fact that this group exists says something.)
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Wilson hit the nail on the head when he likened society's reluctance to deal effectively with human trafficking to the response for too many years to domestic violence.
"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," Wilson said.
We have a long way to go on domestic violence and on trafficking, but we're moving in the right direction. Stone has done good work since becoming solicitor in addressing domestic violence and treating it as the serious crime it is.
Effective enforcement can't come too soon. Federal authorities in the past month have indicted 25 people accused of being involved in a sex trafficking ring that stretched through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Young women from Mexico were lured to the United States by the promise of a better life, but instead were forced have sex, some as often as 30 times a day, said Stone, who read the indictment.
The federal charges came out of an investigation called "Operation Dark Night." Allegations include that some of the victims' children were held hostage to ensure their compliance, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Savannah.
The South Carolina 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 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 the penalties have some teeth. A first-time conviction is a felony that can result in as many as 15 years in prison. A second conviction brings up to 30 years in prison. Subsequent offenses are punishable by up to 45 years in prison. An additional 15 years can be added if victims are younger than 18.
The courts can seize assets from people convicted of trafficking, and the offender can be required to pay restitution to victims.
That's important. Those who benefit from this crime, even indirectly, should not profit from it.
Stone and Wilson are right to continue to speak out against this crime. We expect them to put the new law to good use.