BISMARCK – North Dakota's human trafficking laws-previously rated among the weakest in the nation - are today considered strong by a leading anti-human trafficking advocacy group.

New state laws taking effect today include comprehensive changes to North Dakota's human trafficking laws, such as a "safe harbor" law that treats minors involved with commercial sex as victims and stronger penalties for traffickers.

Polaris, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery, last year listed North Dakota and South Dakota at the bottom of its ratings of effective state laws to combat human trafficking.

While Polaris does not plan to produce a set of state ratings this year, the organization considers the new North Dakota laws to be very strong, said Keeli Sorensen, director of government relations and public policy for Polaris.

Polaris CEO Bradley Myles wrote a letter of support for the laws during the recent legislative session, stating that the new measures will "make a tangible difference in the lives of vulnerable people who are trapped of violence and exploitation with no rights, no freedom, and in desperate need of help."

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A new law that dedicates $1.25 million to victim services is one of the most significant changes, said Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, which represents the 20 domestic violence programs in the state.

"I think that's going to have the largest impact on our crisis centers," Moos said. "Right now, they've been providing services to trafficking victims without additional funding."

A newly appointed human trafficking commission - also established by the Legislature - plans to meet for the first time in August and will be charged with developing a framework to distribute those dollars.

The funding provides $750,000 to western North Dakota, where commercial sex ads have risen in oil-producing areas along with the population increase, and $500,000 for the rest of the state.

The 19-member commission, led by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem with representation from law enforcement, victim advocates, tribal representatives, legislators, the faith community and other stakeholders, will review grant applications for those victim services dollars.

Moos, a member of the commission, said she advocated in the legislative session that the greatest need is for emergency housing for trafficking victims.

A law change that will be most immediately visible is that North Dakota rest areas and visitor centers now have posted public awareness signs with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number.

Polaris, which operates the hotline, recommends that states require posting of such signs, and Myles wrote in his letter that they are "indispensable tools to raise public awareness and vigilance."

Moos said the signs should also lead to more calls to the hotline, which will provide North Dakota with better statistics about the prevalence of trafficking.

Senate Bill 2107, which was the uniform act updating North Dakota's laws against human trafficking, included the most comprehensive changes, including the safe harbor law for minors and allowing for certain criminal convictions to be expunged if they were committed as a result of being a victim.

"The whole change in focus regarding victimization and looking at how a victim may have come into the life, either as an adult or as a juvenile, I think that's going to be the other real big sweeping change we're going to see across the state," Moos said. "And it's going to have to come simultaneously with a lot of education."

FUSE - North Dakota's anti-sex trafficking task force that - plans to provide additional training for law enforcement and others who encounter victims of human trafficking.

Other new requirements in North Dakota law include:

• More protections for victims, including restitution and an opportunity to pursue criminal action against traffickers.

• Stronger penalties for traffickers, including allowing a judge to add five years to a sentence if he or she forced a victim to get an abortion. A trafficker who recruits victims from a shelter that serves the homeless, domestic violence victims or youth could also get five years added to a sentence.

• Stronger penalties for those who purchase commercial sex with minors.