COLUMBIA - South Carolina's top law enforcement official wants prosecutors to have more power to investigate human trafficking, which he referred to as "modern-day slavery."
Attorney General Alan Wilson said Tuesday during a news conference in the Sol Blatt Office Building near the Statehouse that the statewide grand jury needs to have jurisdiction over human trafficking, which, he said, rarely confines itself to one town or county. The State Grand Jury currently investigates other crimes that cross borders, like drugs and corruption.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, have filed bills to give the grand jury that authority. Wilson called on the Legislature to make them law by the end of February.
"We have a human trafficking problem here in South Carolina," Wilson said. "Modern-day slavery is alive and well."
Legislators passed sweeping changes to the state's human trafficking laws in 2012, and the Polaris Project, an advocacy group that rates such laws, moved the state from its lowest-performing group to its highest. Last year, 39 states got top marks.
But Wilson said the new laws could be "much more effective." If police track down a human trafficking ring, he said, they can't follow it outside of their jurisdiction. The State Grand Jury could extend their reach.
North Charleston police Detective Charlie Benton, who joined Wilson at the Statehouse, said he's hit roadblocks since joining his department's special victims unit in 2012 investigating human trafficking that passes through his jurisdiction but extends beyond the city limits.
Wilson, advocates and police believe human trafficking is rampant in South Carolina, but no one is able to say how widespread it is. A state task force said last year that more data needs to be collected to measure its extent.
The Polaris Project said its national hotline got tips about 42 cases in the state between January and September 2014, the 24th-most in the country. About three-quarters were in the sex trade, and the remainder involved laborers, although the tips the group gets don't cover all cases.
The issue affects neighboring states as well, the Polaris numbers suggest. North Carolina had the 12th most cases reported to the hotline, and Georgia had the ninth.
Officials stress that they won't know how the extent of human trafficking happens in South Carolina until police are better-trained to spot it and better-equipped to investigate it and until more people know that it's a problem here.
The bills Wilson hopes to push through would also require businesses, including truck stops and strip clubs, to post signs with information about how to get help.
Teresa Bradwell of Gaston said that like many others, she hadn't thought much about the possibility of human trafficking in South Carolina. But last summer, she found someone she thinks may have been a predator talking to her daughter online.
Bradwell called the police and began to research issues like human trafficking. What she found was enough to push her to join Shared Hope International, an advocacy group, and to take a spot on the state's human-trafficking task force.
"It touched my home, and I know it's touching others," Bradwell said.