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Group says SD has poorest human trafficking laws

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — South Dakota's human trafficking laws are the weakest in the nation, an advocacy group says in a new state-by-state ranking of how forced prostitution and slave labor cases are handled.

South Dakota lacks safe harbor laws for underage victims, doesn't require law officers to undergo training in human trafficking, doesn't seize assets obtained through trafficking, hasn't lowered its burden of proof for sex crimes involving juveniles, and doesn't allow sex trafficking victims to easily purge prostitution convictions from their record, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project.

South Dakota also lost points for lacking a human trafficking task force, though one was created this summer. Polaris Project spokesman Brandon Bouchard said the state wasn't credited for the task force because it was created by law enforcement, not written into law by legislators.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, whose office is part of the task force, cautioned against reading too deeply into the rankings. State and federal law enforcement work together closely in South Dakota, he said, and any state-level trafficking cases are prosecuted under federal law, where the penalties are more severe.

"I've told them that I want to handle as many human trafficking cases as they can find," Johnson said.

On the state level, Attorney General Marty Jackley pointed to South Dakota's kidnapping statute as a law that protects victims without bearing the "sex trafficking" title. In South Dakota, kidnapping can carry a life prison sentence.

Jackley also said the state offers immunity for children involved in trafficking who are cooperating with law enforcement, and the state can expunge misdemeanor prostitution convictions.

Jackley and Gov. Dennis Daugaard said they see the report as an opportunity for improvement.

"Sex trafficking is a very serious crime, and it is important that the state do what it can to prevent it and to punish those who violate the law," Daugaard spokesman Tony Venhuizen said. "Reports like this are a good way to identify opportunities for improvement, and the governor and the attorney general will be talking about the possibility of legislation for this coming session."

Jackley said he doesn't worry about the low ranking.

"What I worry about is whether there's an opportunity for improvement, and I think there is," he said.