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By Ian K. Kullgren March 22, 2012

Did a human trafficking bill lead to dozens of hotline calls?

Last November Portland mayoral candidate and state Rep. Jefferson Smith sat down with Portland Monthly magazine to talk about his candidacy and the future of the city. He opened the discussion with a list of some of his legislative accomplishments, including this one:

"We got a chance to pass what I think is Oregon's first human trafficking bill, which has increased by 66 percent the calls to the human trafficking hotline."

Smith was referencing a bill that passed in the February 2010 special session. Essentially the law asked the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to send out a letter highlighting the issue of human trafficking with each license renewal notice. The letter included a sticker that bar owners and others could post directing people to a hotline run by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

The bill was a start, but we wondered if it really had the effect of increasing calls to the hotline by 66 percent.

We called the OLCC first to get a handle on just how the law ended up playing out. Spokeswoman Joy Spencer told us the organization sent notices to just over 10,000 licensees between April 2010 and March 2011. The program has since ended.

Next, we checked with the hotline to see how Smith’s numbers panned out. Thankfully, the Polaris Project, which runs the hotline, made this pretty easy for us. The project publishes yearly statistics on the hotline, which has been up and running since 2007. The statistics are incredibly comprehensive. They show where the calls are coming from -- down to the county level -- along with the caller’s language, profession if disclosed, and the way they learned about the hotline.

We did some quick math and found Smith was right. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of calls coming from Oregon increased 66 percent, jumping from 95 to 158. Even more impressively, that trend continued into 2011, when the hotline received 191 calls. That’s a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

The figures, though, are always the easy part. Smith was clearly claiming a causation between the increase in the calls and the bill he helped pass. For that, however, there wasn’t much evidence.

As Megan Fowler, spokeswoman for the Polaris Project pointed out, the hotline has been seeing the same trend nationwide. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of calls nationally rose from 7,637 to 11,874, a 55 percent increase. In 2011, the number hit 19,427 -- a 63 percent increase.

What’s more, if you look at where most people in Oregon found the hotline number, the biggest sources are the Internet or "prior knowledge." Few people came by ways of posters or other materials. A number of callers -- 24 percent in 2010 and 33 percent the following year -- didn’t specify where they got the number.

However, that seems to run somewhat counter to Fowler’s experience with Texas where, she said, the Legislature made a law mandating that establishments put up a poster referring people to the hotline. There, she said, a huge number of callers cited "posters" as their informational source.

"We definitely encourage actions like" Oregon’s law, Fowler said. "We do see greater success when the bill is a mandatory posting. But I wouldn't want to dissuade people from putting the hotline number out."

We called Smith to check in with him on the statement. He immediately said that to draw a direct relationship between the hotline gains and his bill was an overstep on his part. He also pointed out that in more recent references, he’s been more humble in what the bill accomplished.

Part of the reason, Smith said, is that since the discussion in November he’s had more time to look at the figures and realized the connection wasn’t as strong as he initially expected. "I don't think that (the quote) accurately reflects the way we typically talk about it."

Smith followed up by sending us a few copies of a list of legislative achievements he’s since distributed. Here’s how he usually plays the human trafficking law: "Chief Co-sponsor of the Human Trafficking Hotline bill -- one of Oregon’s first pieces of human trafficking legislation. Chief Co-sponsor of HB 4146, providing for the expungement of sex trafficking victims. Calls from Oregon to the national hotline have reportedly increased by 66-68%."

"I try to be very careful not to say ‘because’ -- because I rarely can be confident of ‘because,’" Smith wrote.

It’s true that in his more recent statements, Smith doesn’t make an explicitly causal relationship. But even so, it’s implied.

That brings us to our ruling. The number of calls to the hotline has increased significantly over the past couple years -- even more so than the 66 percent Smith cites if you consider the 2011 figures. That said, there’s not much evidence that Oregon’s "hotline law" was the driving force. Nationally, the figures are up by about the same degree and most callers don’t report that they found out about the hotline by way of a poster or other such material.

We rate this claim Mostly False -- there’s a grain of truth, but it ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Call data breakdown, 2009, 2010 and 2011

Interview with Megan Fowler, spokeswoman for the Polaris Project, March 20, 2011

Interview with Jefferson Smith, March 21, 2011

E-mail from Jefferson Smith, March 21, 2011

E-mail from Joy Spencer, spokeswoman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, March 20, 2011

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Did a human trafficking bill lead to dozens of hotline calls?

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