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The University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law’s Kentucky Law Journal hosted its annual symposium virtually on Feb. 5. This year’s theme was sex trafficking and opioids. The all-day symposium featured attorneys, investigators, law professors from across the country, representatives from organizations that help victims, and other experts on the topic. UK Rosenberg Law students served as moderators and panelists.

“Our nation is experiencing a meteoric rise in opioid overdoses. The sheer power of opioid dependency has left few untouched and many devastated in its wake. Inextricably intertwined with opioid dependency is an equally epidemic rise in sex trafficking,” said Blanche Bong Cook, Robert E. Harding Jr. Associate Professor of Law, who organized the symposium with the Kentucky Law Journal.

Experts with firsthand experience in this issue sought to increase public awareness of the converging forces of dependency and vulnerability. Advocates addressed how the legal process can intervene in the demand for human flesh. And activists critiqued the current problems in the criminal justice system’s attempt to ameliorate the problem through mass incarceration.

“I’m delighted to be able to be the dean of a college of law that has faculty and students committed to these issues,” said UK Rosenberg Law Dean Mary J. Davis, who thanked Cook and KLJ students for being passionate about an important problem in Kentucky and the nation.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear provided recorded remarks in which he talked about his work fighting sex trafficking and the opioid epidemic as the state’s attorney general.

“These fights can’t be won in a day. We have to scratch and claw for the inches, the yards that become miles of progress, and that is exactly what my administration will do to protect the lives of the lost and the lonely and the left behind,” Beshear said. “To do this, we must bring all voices to the table like you’ve done today.”

Judge Eric L. Clay, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, called the topic urgent and timely given the enormity of the problem, the number of victims, and the societal cost.

“These two problems are so interconnected to other societal problems such as homelessness, employment, lack of affordable health care, just to name a few,” Clay said. “There seems to be no doubt that the opioid crisis fuels human trafficking and that human trafficking exacerbates the opioid crisis. I’m sure that sex trafficking and opioid addiction have to be addressed together in order to devise solutions for treatment and rehabilitation of victims and to simply get victims to an environment where they will be safe.”

The keynote speaker, Shea M. Rhodes, co-founder and director of Villanova Law’s Institute to Address Commercial and Sexual Exploitation, spent years as a prosecutor before leaving her job to focus on helping the many women often charged with prostitution in her city.

“It was just clear to me as a young prosecutor there was not one single thing that I could do to punish these women,” Rhodes said. “I knew in the back of my mind that what they experienced on the street was so much worse than anything that the criminal justice system could sentence them to. I knew they faced violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and suffered from a co-occurring substance use disorder.”

Each year, the KLJ Symposium takes a deep dive into a pressing legal topic. Erica Ashley Ashton, a third-year law student and editor-in-chief of the Kentucky Law Journal, said she hoped the symposium would increase awareness and provide some concrete solutions.

“We chose to explore the intersection of sex trafficking and opioids for the Volume 109 symposium because, as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage the Commonwealth, its relation to sex trafficking in the state is under-studied but of critical importance,” Ashton said.

Kami Griffith, a third-year law student and special features editor of the Kentucky Law Journal, worked closely with Cook to plan the virtual symposium.

“We want to make sure that the public is aware of the many people and organizations, both locally and nationally, that are dedicating their time to preventing sex trafficking and helping the survivors,” Griffith said.

By Shawntaye Hopkins
Feb. 16, 2021