On June 30th, 2021, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed five pieces of legislation into law– House Bills 156, 246, 843, 1147, and Senate Bill 81 – all of which the CSE Institute supports and commends.
House Bill 156, introduced by Representative Clint Owlett, amends the Tender Years Hearsay Act to permit the introduction of hearsay statements made by children 16 years or younger concerning violent or sexually violent offenses. This is an increase from the prior 12 years old maximum. Given that the sole evidence against many offenders accused of sexual violence and sex traffickers are the statements made by the child victim to another party or family member, this change will serve to protect child victims from re-traumatization on the witness stand.
House Bill 246, introduced by Representative Natalie Mihalek, amends Pennsylvania’s rape shield statute by expanding it to include victims of sex trafficking. Victims and survivors of trafficking experience intense emotional, sexual and physical trauma as part of their exploitation. Often, prosecutors have a difficult time getting these women to agree to testify against their traffickers. Thus, expanding the rape shield law to protect victims of trafficking from having their sexual histories cross-examined on the stand will serve to protect victims and encourage their testimony.
House Bill 843, introduced by Representative David Rowe, amends the law to expand protections for victims and potential victims by requiring convictions for trafficking and Promoting Prostitution of a Minor to be considered during custody cases in family court. Children involved in family court, specifically those involved in foster or kinship care are at increased risk to be commercially sexually exploited. Thus, requiring the court to consider convictions for trafficking before making custody decision will provide increased protections for this vulnerable population.
House Bill 1147, introduced by Representative Valerie Gaydos, demonstrates a commitment to rehabilitation and reformation over punishment in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. This newly passed bill will require that individuals convicted of crimes enumerated in Chapter 30 where the victim is under age 18 or under 18 Pa. C.S. 5902(b.1), known as Promoting Prostitution of a Minor, must undergo treatment for violent sexual behaviors. The CSE Institute emphasizes that through the passing of this bill it will be important for the Department of Corrections to implement a program that recognizes the unique factors that drive traffickers and should shape treatment accordingly.
Finally, Senate Bill 81, introduced by Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr., amends the Judicial Code to allow expert witnesses to be called in cases of domestic violence and human trafficking to explain the behavior of victims. The use of these expert witnesses will be crucial in helping jurors understand the trauma that results from sexual offenses and how that trauma affects the behavior and health of victims of human trafficking.
In all, the signing of these bills into law are critical steps towards re-establishing the Commonwealth’s position as a leading jurisdiction in the fight against human trafficking, and the CSE Institute commends Governor Wolf and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for their support of legislation to combat human trafficking.