LARAMIE — Three words — the first three — stand out on a petition a University of Wyoming student group has circulated since late last year in hopes of persuading state leaders to pass a new human rights law.
"Slavery still exists," according to the International Justice Mission Chapter at UW's petition on human trafficking. "This problem occurs not only overseas, but has also been reported in all 50 U.S. states."
Daniel DeCecco, 21, a UW senior in business economics and international studies, serves as the IJM's state leader for advocacy. Davianne Vanderpool, 19, is a UW freshman communications major and handles public relations for the organization.
They said they spoke with State Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, about having legislation passed on human trafficking in Wyoming, the only state in the U.S. without such a provision.
Connolly has sponsored a bill that establishes criminal penalties for forced labor or sexual servitude and allows states to assist victims, provisions the UW students and IJM were seeking.
DeCecco and Vanderpool have helped circulate the petition since October, acquiring more than 600 signatures personally and online. January marks National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
They have a goal of getting 1,000 people to support the petition.
"I urge you to support crucial anti-trafficking legislation to combat this growing crime and human rights abuse," the document reads. "Wyoming should have a comprehensive law that increases services for victims of human trafficking, holds traffickers accountable, provides tools and training for law enforcement and increases awareness of the problem in our state.
"We should not punish trafficking victims for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked. Instead, we should make it easier for trafficking survivors to rebuild their lives."
Vanderpool, from Green River, said examples of trafficking have cropped up in Wyoming, in places such as Douglas, Glenrock, Casper and Rock Springs.
"We're the only state that doesn't have a trafficking law," she said. "We've had an abundance of stories telling us we need a law like this. There are cases that haven't been tried but have been brought to our attention through IJM.
"What we're trying to do is get a law in place so (victims) won't be tried as criminals. They'll be more willing to come out and say there's a problem here in Wyoming. We just really want to help free these victims from the bondage they're under."
She said Connolly's legislation sends the right message.
"People (who) want to engage in trafficking, they will at least know that in Wyoming we have stronger laws about this," Vanderpool said. "It will show this won't be tolerated here."
DeCecco said the petition is meant to encourage legislators to put a law on the books by showing citizen support.
"The idea . came as a way to mobilize support from the community," he said. "We thought it would be a good way to show legislators that there are many people who are concerned about this issue."
DeCecco said some people have chosen not to sign the petition, citing federal law as enough of a deterrent.
He disagrees, saying a state law provides a better response within Wyoming.
"We're coming at it from an angle that, yes, there is a federal law against trafficking, but that doesn't necessarily excuse a state response," he said. "There are a lot of cases that may not trigger a federal case. We believe the state is so much more closer to the victim, that (the state) can do so much more to give them assistance than the federal government."