After a major commercial sex trafficking bust last month in Jackson County, police forces are taking note of human trafficking on the Coast. Thursday, Jackson County's District Attorney's Office hosted a seminar for local law enforcement to learn what they can do to find and prosecute trafficking.
Human trafficking doesn't necessarily come to mind as a major concern when you think of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but with easy highway, water, and airport access, officials say Mississippi may be seen as an ideal stop for human trafficking. Heather Wagner, Special Assistant Attorney General, says, “And Mississippi, we're on the way to a lot of different places, between Texas and Florida, and Atlanta, and Chicago. We're kind of a crossroads.”
Wagner and the Attorney General's Office suggest using human trafficking task forces, but limited resources make it difficult for most police forces. Despite the challenges, Jackson County joined forces with city police departments, sheriff's departments, D.A.'s offices, and federal agencies to create a task force. Tony Lawrence, District Attorney for Jackson County, says, “Unfortunately it's a bigger problem and a growing problem that we're seeing on the Coast. Several years ago, we started hearing some problems about it, so we put together a task force.”
Lawrence says at the courthouse, he can more easily prosecute human trafficking crimes because of new laws in the State of Mississippi. Wagner also says, “The changes put into place that hit the demand side, as opposed to the victim side, were put into effect as of July 1st, 2013.”
That means harsher penalties for the pimps, instead of the prostitutes, but even for agencies already involved in the task force, more education is needed to first identify possible trafficking rings. Sgt. Doug Adams of the Pascagoula Police Department, Public Relations, says, “Our officers and the general public are really not schooled in this area and don't know some of the things to look for, and so that's one of the things that we hope to start correcting today.”
The District Attorney's Office will continue holding classes to educate the Coast on how to keep our citizens safe. The state Attorney General's Office says they'll continue to encourage other counties throughout the state to develop task forces as well.