Margie Quin, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge, gives a presentation on trafficking at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tenn., on Jan. 25, 2012. / Kenneth Cummings / File / Gannett
By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
As sex trafficking has garnered newfound attention, Tennessee has developed one of the nation's most comprehensive anti-trafficking programs.
An additional 12 new laws approved by lawmakers this year include harsher criminal penalties on traffickers, an extended window of time for prosecutors to bring charges and the creation of a state trafficking task force to study and respond to the issue.
The measures amplify a wave of attention since a statewide study in 2011 documented incidents of sex trafficking - which officials define as coercive adult prostitution and any sexual exploitation of children.
"We have been adding (laws) for the last two years, but this year, by far, is the biggest," said Margie Quin, an assistant special agent in charge at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "I would label this as sweeping changes."
Since the 2011 study, the TBI has trained thousands of agents, and this year a coalition of women's groups funded promotions for the state's trafficking phone line for crime tips and victim assistance. And Nashville again will host a four-day conference on trafficking - beginning today - in which police, teachers and social workers will receive training.
Of the laws going into effect July 1, Quin said one stood out: Authorities will be able to prosecute those paying for sex - the "johns" - as traffickers.
"It sends a pretty clear message that you're not off the hook just because you're not a pimp," Quin said. "It takes the 'john' to complete the transaction. ... This is an effort to curb demand."
In the past, police were restricted to arrests based on solicitation of a minor or statutory rape. But trafficking carries tougher penalties.
It's 'about time' to protect children
Lawmakers also rewrote state law so that defendants could not plead ignorance about the age of a child victim, nor argue that acts done with children were consensual.
Trafficking survivor Sheila Simpkins praised the stiffer laws. But she also wondered why they didn't materialize sooner.
"It's sad, in a sense, that you had to create something like this in order to protect a child," she said. "I guess it's about time."
Simpkins, 43, of Nashville, said she endured a life of prostitution for about 15 years, beginning when she was 14. She graduated from Magdalene House, a residential recovery program, in 2006, and she has worked there and as an intervention specialist with End Slavery Tennessee.
She said the impact of the laws would depend on whether criminals were aware that their actions could get them in big trouble.
"Will they even know?" she said. "We need someone to be made an example."
Other law changes allow for:
• Gang charges in trafficking cases;
• Trafficking as a grounds for termination of parent rights; and
• Child victims to testify outside courtrooms via closed-circuit TVs.
Figures disputed, new report in works
Despite success with lawmakers, the TBI has had to defend some of its 2011 findings, including from police who have questioned whether the survey inflated the number of trafficking incidents.
For example, Davidson County was marked in the survey as having at least 100 cases. But Nashville police made just seven trafficking arrests in 2011 and 2012 combined.
The study authors stand by their numbers, saying social service agencies, not police, encounter more such cases.
Another study, led by the Department of Human Services, due June 30, focuses on how Tennessee could treat trafficking survivors.
"It will require legislation," Quin said. "It will require funding. That's probably up next: this very comprehensive plan for the treatment and the care of victims of human trafficking."
Simpkins said she had already seen a growing understanding of trafficking. But training needs remain.
"If the police don't know how to talk to these women, they're going to shut down and nobody else is going to be able to get in," she said. "Everyone is just getting started. So they all need to come together."
Report trafficking or get help:
Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-855-55-TNHTH, or 1-855-558-6484
IF YOU GO
What: The Trafficking in America Conference invites the public and officials to learn more about trafficking through expert talks. The event is hosted by an Antioch-based nonprofit.
Where: The Inn at Opryland (formerly the Radisson)
When: Today through Saturday