In a press conference held Thursday to observe Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Governor Greg Gianforte was joined by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, law enforcement officials, and nonprofit leaders. Governor Gianforte expressed his strong stance against human trafficking, condemning the perpetrators who prey on individuals and engage in heart-wrenching crimes. He emphasized Montana’s unwavering commitment to not tolerating such heinous acts, vowing to hold traffickers accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Governor Gianforte urged Montanans to actively contribute to combating human trafficking by educating themselves on its signs. He emphasized the importance of reporting any suspicions, reinforcing the community’s role in addressing this pervasive issue.
Attorney General Knudsen echoed the Governor’s sentiments, stating his personal dedication to eradicating human trafficking in Montana. He highlighted the Department of Justice’s efforts to enhance laws and allocate additional resources for identifying and prosecuting traffickers and their patrons. Recognizing the limitations of law enforcement, Attorney General Knudsen encouraged every Montanan to familiarize themselves with the signs of human trafficking and to report any observed incidents. He emphasized the collective responsibility to convey the message that Montana is an inhospitable environment for criminals engaged in such activities.
During the previous spring, Governor Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 112 into law, a legislative initiative championed by Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings. This legislation, brought forth at the request of the attorney general, stands as a significant stride in fortifying Montana’s stance against human trafficking. The bill intensifies penalties for sex traffickers, equips prosecutors with enhanced tools to address such cases, and broadens the scope of activities categorized as human trafficking.
Bozeman Police Chief Jim Veltkamp, addressing the press conference, emphasized the tangible impact of this legislation on law enforcement efforts. He noted, “This law provided us with an additional tool in the toolbox, enabling us to broaden our investigations and proceed with prosecutions.”
Lowell Hochhalter, the leader of The LifeGuard Group, a nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking, expressed gratitude for the new law. He acknowledged the profound message conveyed by the Governor, Attorney General, and the legislature to victims and survivors in the state, emphasizing the significance of recognizing the human aspect in addressing trafficking.
The Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) reported a staggering increase in human trafficking cases since 2021. In 2015, seven cases were recorded, rising to 68 in 2021, 106 in 2022, and 143 in 2023.
Belgrade Police Chief Dustin Lensing highlighted the misconception that human trafficking is an issue confined to other regions, asserting, “It’s become apparent that it’s very much a problem here in Montana.”
Governor Gianforte, along with law enforcement leaders, urged Montanans to actively contribute to the solution. Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer emphasized the unique advantage Montana possesses in its collaborative network between state and local partners. He stressed the crucial role citizens play in recognizing abnormal situations at the local level.
The DOJ provided indicators of potential human trafficking, including behavioral cues such as reluctance to engage in conversation, poor physical condition, and lack of control over possessions. They also outlined steps for citizens to follow if they witness trafficking, emphasizing safety and the importance of reporting to the authorities.
Governor Gianforte officially proclaimed January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, with January 11, 2024, designated as Human Trafficking Awareness Day. He urged heightened awareness and engagement from Montanans, emphasizing that with increased awareness, more victims can receive the necessary support to recover and rebuild their lives. The full proclamation can be viewed HERE