Thistle Farms, a nonprofit organization in Nashville, provides housing and training to provide a path to financial independence to survivors of sexual trafficking, prostitution and addiction. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Thirty-five years ago, Kelly Alsobrook didn’t even consider going to the police after being brutalized in a gang rape.
Alsobrook was living a life of forced prostitution. She worried she would be arrested; she was even more fearful of the reaction of her trafficker, whose punishments included severe beatings, withholding food and water and forcing her to stay out longer, even after she had met her daily quota, she said.
“I couldn’t go to police, because their answer usually is, ‘well, isn’t that an occupational hazard?’” Alsobrook, now 56, said Tuesday. “Even if you see another victim being beaten, or whatever, it was the same answer. And then there were the repercussions from the trafficker.”
Alsobrook is among the advocates urging Tennessee lawmakers to enact protections she never had: a bill, introduced this year, that would prevent victims of trafficking from arrest on prostitution charges for simply reporting a crime.
Introduced by Sen. Page Walley, R-Savannah and Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, the so-called Tennessee Safe Crime Reporting Law also seeks to increase criminal penalties for those patronizing prostitutes.
The measure is designed to overcome longstanding mistrust between trafficking victims and law enforcement, which not only puts victims in danger but hinders broader public safety efforts, advocates say.
“It creates a bridge,” said Alisa Bernard, policy director of the Nashville nonprofit Thistle Farms, which brought the measure before lawmakers.
“If, for example, someone sees a child being trafficked they can report that to police” without fear of their own arrest. It’s a fear that goes beyond the legal ramifications of being arrested, Alsobrook noted. Victims know when they get out they can also be severely punished by traffickers.
Historically the law has treated trafficking victims forced into prostitution as offenders, “when they’re almost always a victim who has been fraudulently enticed or forced into that life,” Ragan said in a statement. “It’s almost never voluntary.”
“These victims experience ongoing trauma from multiple abusers and as a result, they don’t report these crimes for fear of prosecution or retaliation,” he said. “This law provides limited amnesty and protections for those victims along with more serious punishment for those engaged in human trafficking.”
The bill also seeks to hold sex buyers accountable. They are the key drivers of a trade that repeatedly traps children and adults and are often perpetrators of violence themselves.
If enacted, the law would bar arrest, charges or prosecution for prostitution offenses of a person who in “good faith” reports a criminal act. The bill would also replace the current Class A misdemeanor charge for patronizing prostitution — which comes with a maximum of one year in jail — with a Class E felony charge, which brings up to a 6-years prison sentence.
Alsobrook, who now serves as an author, public speaker and law enforcement field trainer with Memphis-based EmpowerU Dynamics, said the measure is a key first step in building trust between victims and police.
“It’s beat into our heads not to talk to law enforcement,” she said. “Even when we do get arrested, once we get out we get a beat down from the trafficker. All of this plays into this bill, with law enforcement being more aware, building the rapport, not judging and actually looking at victims as victims would make a huge difference.”
Those protections are critical, she said, but upping criminal penalties for sex buyers would be a “game changer” in combatting trafficking, she said.
“If law enforcement arrested every trafficker there was and put them away on a Friday by Monday there’d be a whole new set, because the demand is so high,” Alsobrook said. “These buyers are what’s fueling human trafficking. And they can be extremely brutal. They want acts that can be defiling. They feel like because they’ve purchased someone they can do whatever they want to them and it’s okay.”
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