The last decade of media attention given to increasing human sex trafficking inside U.S; borders has sparked intense public interest, triggering an unprecedented law enforcement and prosecutorial response to address these kinds of crimes. This type of response at the federal and state level doesn’t typically happen at the level we’ve seen over the past five years.
On the one hand, this response is a good thing – it is helping more victims each year. However, the response does have some real collateral consequences: improper, even illegal, policing; civil and constitutional rights violations; and false allegations leading to wrongful convictions and destroyed lives of innocent people.
As a successful Texas sex crime defense attorney, I’ve seen the harm caused by overzealous policing, but at least in the Lone Star State there has been positive results because of increased social awareness about human sex trafficking.
In this post, I want to touch on some recent changes that should produce long term positive results for every facet of our criminal justice system.
Looking Back – Recent Changes in Sex Trafficking Laws and Policies
From 2015 through the end of 2018, we have seen progress made in addressing both the global and domestic problem sex trafficking. Highlighted are some of the most impactful events occurring during that time in the Lone Star State:
- 2015: Former President Barak Obama signs into law the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.
- 2016: The University of Texas Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault publishes the Human Trafficking by the Numbers study, revealing 300k+ victims of human trafficking in the state of Texas, of which around a quarter are minors and youth victims.
- 2017: Texas HB 29 bill increases penalties for certain prostitution offenses, cancels the disbanding of the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, and prioritizes hearings related to child sex trafficking cases.
- February 2018: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled initiatives increasing human trafficker penalties further and creating regional squads to combat trafficking.
- October 2018: New diagnosis codes that differentiate trafficking from other types of abuse are rolled out in Texas. Similar to the screening guidelines for identifying domestic and child abuse, but specific to the warning signs of human sex trafficking, these codes help track total victims and provide appropriate treatment.
Looking Forward – What Impact Should We Expect?
The widespread reach of the digital age has made human sex trafficking a multibillion-dollar global business. The internet allows for online marketing, sales, and recruitment for sex trafficking on a international scale. The numbers are staggering.
However, at its core, human sex trafficking still requires person-to-person contact in every aspect, and legislation passed over the last five years to address this problem has begun to result in a positive ways
In the past, traffickers were often overlooked in the prosecution of sex crimes, while victims were arrested as prostitutes. New data-driven approaches to sex trafficking training programs being installed in Texas as a result of new legislation will assist law enforcement in developing a more holistic approach.
For example, Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center has recently initiated a training program of their own to help hospital staff identify and combat human trafficking.
These efforts involve training staff members to identify telltale signs of a victim, and the procedures to follow if trafficking is suspected.
This training includes education in the use of force, fraud, and coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or forced labor against his or her will. The premise is that intervention at the medical level can provide a lifeline to victims.
The goal seems to be creating an environment where, instead of assuming victimized youth are “just prostitutes,” officials are given the tools – and resources – to look at bigger questions:
- Where are these young people coming from?
- What kind of situation is this person in right now?
- What can we do about this?
From Handcuffs to Referrals
Authorities are transitioning to a model where they try to help through referrals rather than handcuffs. If a victim has an addiction, they’re encouraged to seek counseling. If they are homeless, officers connect them with agencies that can help.
This represents the kind of progress made in the last few decades when law enforcement responds to domestic violence calls. The common question used to be, “Why can’t the wife just run away when the husband isn’t home?” Today, however, that question has become, “How can we help you get out of this situation?”
Hopefully, we can expect the same shift in the area of human sex trafficking.
This coming March, the Business and Commerce segment of the Texas HB 29 bill goes into effect as well, requiring sexually oriented businesses to post signs by sink areas in each restroom with contact information to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in both English and Spanish.
This focus on increased awareness and training in regards to how the sex trafficking industry works should help to shift the focus from simply arresting victims to catching traffickers and exposing larger sex ring operators.