ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota has new ammunition in the fight against sex trafficking.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced a bipartisan bill to ensure minors trapped in the trade aren't prosecuted.
The announcement came as advocates broke ground on a new shelter for victims in St. Paul.
The "Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act" or (SETT) Bill will use Minnesota's safe harbor laws as a nationwide model to ensure young women sold for sex are not classified as defendants, but instead seen as victims. Renewed focus will allow law enforcement to prosecute the perpetrators of the trade.
Klobuchar joined the 180 Degrees Youth Development Center, the organization that will open the new shelter for sexually exploited youth, with an estimated 12 beds for young girls and teens ages 10 to 18 years old. Right now the state of Minnesota only has two beds for sex trafficking victims in need.
"In Minnesota, the average age of a child that gets involved in sex trafficking is 13 years old, 13 years old, not even old enough to get your driver's license, not even old enough to go to your first prom," said Klobuchar. "I love the name 180 Degrees, this is about turning lives around and there is no tougher life than the lives of victims of sex trafficking and the plans are amazing for the new facility."
Klobuchar said the federal government gave a $350,000 grant to open the new shelter, along with a $500,000 grant from the city of St. Paul. Her hope is with a new model, more funding will become available for similar shelters across the state and nation.
Other officials showed their support for stronger laws including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, 180 Degrees CEO Richard Gardell and the Women's Foundation President and CEO Lee Roper-Batker.
"None of us should ever have a blind eye to what goes on with this. This is a national issue that crosses all cultural and ethnic lines. For a lot of us, it's been too long and silent because a lot of people don't want to talk about it. Now, we have an opportunity, a voice, a national voice," said Smith.
Ramsey County attorney John Choi said he's prosecuted five sex trafficking defendants in the past year and a half, with three of them sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
"With two more in pipeline and many more cases we are working on, but, that does not happen unless we have this victim centered approach where these courageous young girls tell their story, and that is a hard thing to do," said Choi.
An estimated 27 million people are trafficked for sex worldwide each year.
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