Dozens of people gathered at the Statehouse in Trenton Friday to rally for stronger penalties for human trafficking in New Jersey as well as drawing attention to the crime that's estimated to victimize hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S.

 

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey says kids who run away from home can end up being trafficking victims and forced into prostitution.

"Every year more than a hundred thousand girls, average age 12, are on the streets, and they usually begin as a runaway," said Smith. "So they think they're escaping what they think is a terrible situation at home only to go into the fire."

Human traffickers also force undocumented immigrants into sweat-shop labor.

Smith has been instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of the 600,000 to 800,000 people the State Department estimates are trafficked in the United States annually.

A bill making its way though the state Legislature would raise awareness about the problem, encourage more victims to come forward, and increase the penalties for traffickers.

State Sen. Nellie Pou says traffickers often target undocumented immigrants.

"Many of them are absolutely forced into this country just for the purpose of being lured into a sex trade type of environment," said Pou, D-Passaic. "Many times we find that human trafficking is also done in terms of domestic help."

New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who led one of the programs Friday, last year created a unit to focus on the problem.