"Until recently, human trafficking has remained largely in the shadows of society," says Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. "Victims are often children and vulnerable women who are too afraid and dependent on traffickers to break their silence and seek help. Many times they are exploited for years and coerced into prostitution, labor, and drug activity. When they finally have a chance to regain their freedom, they are prosecuted for the crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved, while the real perpetrators remain untouched by the law. With this bill, we hope to change all that."

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An Assembly panel has approved the "Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act," sweeping new bipartisan legislation sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, which she says builds upon nearly a year's worth of research and consultations with experts and advocates, to crackdown on human trafficking, a crime that is estimated to claim up to 20 million victims worldwide.

The Division of Criminal Justice has reported 179 cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey in the past seven years.

Experts estimate that there are actually thousands of incidents occurring each year in the state. On a national level, the U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States annually, on top of the 100,000 victims who are already in the country when they are enslaved. The reporting discrepancy is often attributed to victims' fear of coming forward.

"There are two important messages contained in this bill. To victims: You're not alone. To perpetrators: We're coming after you," explains Vainieri Huttle. "We're taking a spotlight and shining it on this issue so that it can't operate in the shadows anymore."

Ingrid Johnson is from Irvington, New Jersey. Her daughter was 13 when she became a victim of human trafficking. Johnson struggled for two years, largely on her own, to find her daughter and was eventually successful in locating her at age 15. Her daughter is now a junior in college, but her story underscores the need for a strong, coordinated law enforcement network in place.

Mrs. Johnson says after being missing for 11 months her daughter was able to sneak away and call her from a gas station bathroom. Police were ultimately able to track the call and save the girl.

Vainieri Huttle's legislation would crack down on every aspect of trafficking by revising and expanding the state's current laws to create a new human trafficking commission, criminalize additional activities related to human trafficking, upgrade certain penalties on existing human trafficking or related crimes, increase protections afforded to victims of human trafficking, and provide for increased training and public awareness on human trafficking issues.

The measure would establish a 15-member Commission on Human Trafficking, to be located in the Department of Law and Public Safety, which would evaluate existing laws concerning human trafficking and enforcement, as well as review existing victim assistance programs, and promote a coordinated response by public and private resources for victims of human trafficking.

The bill would also establish a separate, non-lapsing, dedicated fund known as the "Human Trafficking Survivor's Assistance Fund," which would be administered by the commission to provide services to victims of human trafficking and promote awareness of the crime.

The legislation would establish the "John School Diversion Program" to educate anyone who has been convicted of engaging a prostitute ("johns") about the health risks and legal ramifications of their unlawful activity. Each defendant would be subject to a penalty of $1,000 to be deposited in the "Human Trafficking Survivor's Assistance Fund." The program is modeled after similar "john school" programs that have been implemented in Buffalo, New York; Brooklyn, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and West Palm Beach, Florida. The bill would also mandate law enforcement training on responding to the needs of victims of human trafficking.

Vainieri Huttle says her bill is timely because, "The Super Bowl is coming (to New Jersey) in 2014 and we all know that based on statistics from previous games in high venues like that there is a sharp increase in human trafficking."

"You may think that it only happens in developing nations or in places of war, but it happens right here in New Jersey," explains Vainieri Huttle. "In New Jersey, I was astonished, the average age of trafficking of children is 12-years-old."