AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The issue of human trafficking is getting increased exposure in Augusta and across the state with a new law that went into effect this month.
Bars, airports and hospitals are posting notices in an effort to reduce the number of people in Georgia who are forced into commercial sexual exploitation and labor servitude.
State Attorney General Sam Olens estimates that more than 28,000 men knowingly or unknowingly have sex with prostituted girls each year in Georgia and that every month, 200 to 500 girls, mostly ages 12 to 14, are commercially exploited statewide.
Alarmed by the statistics, Olens joined forces with state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, to advocate for stronger human trafficking laws in Georgia, including House Bill 141, which imposes a fine of up to $5,000 for businesses that fail to inform victims of a 24-hour, toll-free hotline they can call for help.
"This legislation brings Georgia one step closer to creating a system of care for children involved in sexual trafficking," said Unterman, who carried the bill through the Senate in March by a 47-1 vote.
The new law requires bars, hotels, hospitals, adult entertainment businesses, airports, bus stations, truck stops, job recruitment centers, interstate rest areas, massage parlors and tattoo studios to post the notices that list the hotline number in conspicuous places.
In Augusta, the 8½-by-11-inch signs have been posted in bathrooms, entryways and emergency rooms at Trinity Hospital, Georgia Regents Medical Center and Augusta Regional Airport.
"Are you or someone you know being sold for sex or made to work for little or no pay and cannot leave?" the notices read. "Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 for help. All victims of slavery and human trafficking have rights and are protected by international, federal, and state law."
The hotline is anonymous and confidential; accessible in 170 languages; operated by a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization; and provides referral services, training and general information, according to the text of the law.
House Bill 141 follows two years of heightened human trafficking enforcement in Georgia.
In July 2011, Georgia substantially increased the punishment for human trafficking from a possible one-year sentence to a minimum of 10 years in prison.
If the trafficking causes a minor to commit sex acts by coercion or deception, traffickers face 25 years to life in prison, up from a maximum sentence of 20 years. Offenders can also be fined up to $100,000.
The tougher penalties led Georgia to become one of seven states to earn a B grade in a national study conducted by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that grades the effectiveness of the states' human trafficking law annually.
The state was previously rated a C.
"I am pleased that Georgia's human trafficking law is considered among the best in the nation," Olens said in a news release.