LINCOLN — Law enforcement will ramp up prosecutions of people who buy or attempt to buy children for sex in Nebraska this year following the passage of stricter penalties last year, Attorney General Doug Peterson said Thursday.
Active law enforcement operations to target and stop child sex trafficking have already begun, Peterson said as lawmakers announced a new awareness campaign to address the problem.
"I really believe the ball has been handed to us (in law enforcement) to really start moving," Peterson said at a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.
Peterson, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and various state lawmakers and law enforcement officials heralded the new anti-sex trafficking education effort Thursday.
Posters will be placed at state rest stops as part of the "Demand An End" campaign, an initiative Nebraska has adopted from the Georgia Attorney General's Office. Ricketts declared January human trafficking awareness month.
This campaign and the ongoing enforcement efforts are the latest public sector pushes in Nebraska to target and mete out demand for the sale of minors and adults coerced or forced into sex, officials said.
"The most despicable part about it is that it is the sale and resale of human flesh, of our most vulnerable of Nebraskans" said Lincoln Sen. Pansing Brooks, who last year successfully led the passage of tougher penalties for traffickers.
Among the law changes was the addition of people who knowingly solicit sex from a minor. Anyone convicted of sex or labor trafficking of a minor faces a minimum of 20 years in prison under the law.
These new penalties are a "sea change" that Nebraska is not a welcome place for this new-age "slavery," Pansing Brooks said.
Prior to the change, soliciting prostitution from someone younger than 18 was punishable for up to two years in prison.
Already, the Nebraska State Patrol has set up efforts to find traffickers across the state, said Superintendent Col. John Bolduc.
In late December, a law enforcement task force in Scottsbluff arrested four people on suspicion of sex trafficking, according to a news release from the Salvation Army, which is providing support services for trafficking victims.
In one of those cases, a 64-year-old man sought to pay for sex with an undercover investigator he believed was a 15-year-old girl and her mother, according to court documents.
With the new laws on the books, the state hopes to educate Nebraskans and its visitors about the tougher approach, Peterson said.
He isn't worried the posters will sully Nebraska's reputation among travelers stopping at state rest areas, he said.
"I would hope that people say 'Hey, Nebraskans care about their youth, and I'm glad to see they're being aggressive about it,'" Peterson said.