Legislative Responses to Modern Day Slavery – Fulfilling the Gettysburg Promise

November 19, 2013

Abraham LincolnLikely suffering from the early stages of smallpox, a weak and feverish President Abraham Lincoln stood before the nation to deliver what has become one of the most important speeches in American history.  He was nominally there to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but instead, in just ten sentences over a few short minutes, Lincoln galvanized the purpose of the Civil War as not only to preserve the Union, but also to preserve the ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom.

To many, the ultimate victory of the Union meant that the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – were fulfilled. With the ratification of the Thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution in December 18, 1865, slavery became a closed issue: a stain on our history, but no longer a current problem. (For additional background on the speech and its historical significance, see Chas Neff’s blog post.)

However comforting that myth became, it is not reality. In fact, the statistics are overwhelming. Nearly 30 million people are currently enslaved globally. Approximately half of those people are in India, but the problem exists throughout the world, and the United States continues to struggle with human trafficking problems. It is estimated that there are 57,000 to 63,000 slaves in the United States today. For country-by-country statistics compiled by the Walk Free Foundation, you can see an interactive map at their website.

In September, at the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama announced new federal initiatives to end slavery. These included increased communication between law enforcement, businesses, and community organizations to monitor for human trafficking; using technology to uncover trafficking; and help for victims of human trafficking to rebuild their lives. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is also supporting such actions against human traffickers.

At the state level, governments are also passing key pieces of legislation to quash human trafficking.

These efforts tend to fall into two categories: those focused on the traffickers and those focused on the victims.

First, in 2013, states toughened their criminal and civil laws to allow additional actions against human traffickers. These laws increased the penalties associated with human trafficking, and included the use of tax evasion laws, forfeiture of property used in human trafficking, the limitation of defenses, and extensions of the time in which such actions may be brought.  States that took these types of initiatives included: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The second category of 2013 legislation was new or expanded efforts focusing on victims. These laws provided for additional reporting requirements, immunity from prosecution for victims, and expungement of victim records. The states taking these actions included: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.

While human slavery is still rampant in the world, these efforts by businesses, non-profits, and federal and state governments provide hope that the sacrifices of the brave men at Gettysburg, and the work of abolitionists – historical and modern day – will soon be proven to not be in vain, and that this nation – and the world – “shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”