New Jersey officials on Friday marked "Human Trafficking Awareness Day" with a rally and other events at the Statehouse amid efforts on several fronts to combat the problem.
State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who led one of the programs in Trenton, created a new unit this summer to focus on combatting human trafficking, a crime believed to be widely unreported.
As awareness has grown about the practice of people being exploited by human traffickers for money, another major push has been on passing legislation to tighten restrictions and vacate the criminal convictions of those compelled by their traffickers to break the law.
At least seven states, including New York in 2010, have passed laws vacating the convictions of trafficking victims who meet the legal standards, and similar legislation is pending in New Jersey and elsewhere in the nation.
"We need to recognize that victims who were coerced should get those crimes vacated; if they are enslaved, why should their crimes be considered criminal acts?" said Bridgette Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law school.
Carr said people forced into the sex trade and exploited by traffickers should be categorized as sex abuse victims, but instead are often viewed as "hybrid 'victim-criminals.'"
Those with prostitution-related criminal convictions have trouble getting jobs, applying for mortgages or qualifying for student financial aid, experts say, even if they were forced into the lifestyle by pimps or as the result of abusive or coercive relationships, which can qualify them as trafficking victims.
For one 25-year-old New York woman, three prior convictions for prostitution prevented her from getting a job once she decided to leave her abuser. She spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because she didn't want potential employers to find out about her past.
Court papers show she was coerced into prostitution at age 15 by an older, abusive boyfriend.
After struggling for years to escape a string of abusive pimps, she managed to earn a high school equivalency diploma and graduate from several job training programs, only to be rejected with each fingerprinting background check or application that required her to check the "convicted felon" box.
Under a New York law that was the first of its kind in the nation, the woman's criminal convictions were vacated last month and her record wiped clean, a feeling she said "overwhelmed her with tears of happiness."
Kate Mogulescu, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represented the woman, said more than 20 survivors of human trafficking have had their criminal convictions vacated since the New York law was passed in 2010.
Experts believe there are many millions of victims of human trafficking around the globe. President Barack Obama said at a forum in 2012 that human trafficking "must be called by its true name: modern slavery."
The administration has said it will provide more training on human trafficking to federal prosecutors, law enforcement officials, immigration judges and others. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a campaign to raise awareness on the issue domestically and investigate international trafficking networks.
Chiesa's new Human Trafficking Task Force was set up in part to train law enforcement officials to recognize the signs of potential trafficking, for example, when arresting someone for prostitution.
Trafficking, despite the implications of the word, does not have to involve large groups of people or movement across borders, like smuggling. Trafficking is often a crime against an individual, and involves commercial sex acts or labor or services that are induced through force, fraud, or coercion, according to the Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and pushes for stronger state and federal anti-trafficking laws.
Victims come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and can range from illegal immigrants held in financial bondage in the U.S. until they pay off their passage, to American teenagers born and raised in the suburbs and coerced into prostitution.
James Dold, policy counsel for Polaris, said Friday's events were intended to raise awareness of the issue nationwide, and of the need for more victim-centered legislation, such as bills vacating the criminal convictions of trafficking survivors.
"We need victims to go from being survivors to being thrivers in a community," he said.
Henry reported from Newark, N.J. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SamanthaHenry