Human trafficking, already a crime in New Jersey, would amount to a recoverable civil offense under newly introduced legislation.
The measure, S-2263, would create a cause of action for anyone who “sustains injury to person or property” as a result of violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:13-8, which criminalized holding, enticing or recruiting a person to engage in prostitution or perform labor by using threats of violence or legal action, or profiting by helping orchestrate such activity.
The state Attorney General’s Office, or the parent or guardian of a minor, would be able to pursue a civil suit on behalf of a trafficking victim.
Although N.J.S.A. 2C:13-8 provides for restitution, equal to the gross income derived or the value of the labor or services provided, the new bill would allow recovery of compensatory damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, emotional trauma and costs of counseling, as well as punitive damages and attorney fees.
In actions lodged by the state, injunctive and equitable relief also would be available. Any fees and costs recovered by the state would go to a fund to provide victims shelter and legal services, and to train law enforcement.
An award would be offset by any restitution already recovered or compensation paid by the Victims of Crime Compensation Office.
The bill sets no time limitation — the actions “may be commenced at any time” — and requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
The bill would take effect immediately and apply to actions filed on or after that date, including those where the offense occurred earlier.
A second bill introduced Thursday, S-2264, would provide relief from prostitution convictions for people forced into that activity by traffickers.
Convictions would be expunged five years after a fourth-degree offense, and three years after a disorderly persons offense. The clock would start running at conviction, payment of fine, completion of parole or release from incarceration, whichever occurred last.
The measure would expand N.J.S.A. 2C:13-8, which already provides trafficking victims with protections and services extended to other violent-crime victims, and gives them an affirmative defense on those charges.
The Superior Court judge would need to find that expungement would be in the public interest, the defendant’s status as a victim was a contributing factor to the criminal behavior, and the person has no criminal record.
A third bill, S-2265, also introduced Thursday, would expand the list of mitigating factors judges may consider at sentencing to include the defendant’s status as a human-trafficking victim.
Also, the measure would allow those incarcerated on the effective date — who have no prior or subsequent criminal record — to move to have the sentence reviewed by a judge, who in turn could vacate the conviction and resentence the defendant or impose probation.
The judge would consider whether the sentence as it stands serves the interests of justice, taking into account whether the defendant’s victim status contributed to the criminal behavior.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who is sponsoring all three measures, says they provide “a way for victims to recover some damages, because their lives have been damaged.”
The bills shouldn’t generate significant opposition, says Vitale, who is active with Covenant House, a charitable organization that seeks to prevent trafficking and otherwise aid homeless youths.
Vitale says some victims, specifically undocumented immigrants, are disinclined to utilize the court system, so not all victims will benefit from the changes.
“It’ll help some,” he says. “It’s not a cure-all … but it’ll make a difference.”
Senate Republican spokesman Adam Bauer declines comment.