Combat S.C. sex trafficking

Jamie Mitchell, a former victim of sex trafficking, now works as a prostitute on the streets of North Charleston. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

It’s easy to understand why sex trafficking has stayed mostly in the shadows in South Carolina. It’s distressing just to admit that 12-year-old girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

Beyond that, the tendency has been to see the girls as criminals, arresting and prosecuting them instead of going after the monsters who force them into that life — and their sleazy customers.

South Carolina needs to do better in countering this menace. That much seems clear from The Post and Courier’s series “The Nightmare of Sex Trafficking,” which ran in the Sunday and Monday papers.

But it is a step in the right direction that the subject is being addressed. Attorney General Alan Wilson has made countering this scourge one of his main objectives.

The FBI in South Carolina has assigned one of its most knowledgeable agents to study the problem. And a Lexington woman who got caught up in the sex trade at a young age has filed paperwork with the secretary of state to establish a human trafficking resource center for South Carolina.

A 2012 state law established a human trafficking task force to analyze the situation and propose solutions like training professionals to recognize signs of the sex trade, coordinating the collection and sharing of trafficking data among agencies, and providing services for the rehabilitation of victims.

Unfortunately, it has been slow going. The AG’s office has not taken a single case to trial since the law passed in 2012.

And the law also has one big loophole. It calls for the consideration of helpful measures, instead of requiring that they be accomplished. That should change.

The scope of human trafficking in the state is still anybody’s guess. It goes unidentified and unprosecuted because not enough law enforcement officers have been trained to detect and deal with trafficking.

South Carolina also needs to reconsider a bill that languished in the House Judiciary Committee in this year’s session. It would ensure minors that have been trafficked are referred to service agencies instead of being sent to jail.

But that will take more resources to harness the problem. Though law enforcement agencies monitor social media for clues, it is difficult to discern which prostitutes are being forced to sell themselves. Agencies don’t have the money to stake out motel rooms or line up dates online to ferret out trafficking victims.

People in the hospitality industry should receive training on how to spot signs of trafficking. Hotels and motels, along with the Internet, are where most trafficking deals take place.

Hopefully, with enough education about the issue, people from all walks of life will become more sensitive to sex trafficking and become part of the solution.

This isn’t a crime that only happens somewhere far away or in remote social circles.

It can happen next door, and it does happen across South Carolina.

It’s time to do what it takes to identify the problem and put an end to it.