Update, Sept. 25, 2:20 p.m.:
HOUSTON — Despite years of efforts to crack down on human trafficking in Texas, the problem persists, lawmakers and advocates said at a hearing Tuesday where legislators were urged to increase civil penalties for trafficking businesses.
Pimps still operate with little pressure, said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. "There are three or four books on how to be a pimp,” Thompson said. “If you think I'm kidding, go to Amazon.com."
Changes to civil codes, as opposed to criminal statutes, will be part of the next step as Texas lawmakers tackle human trafficking. At a joint Senate and House committee hearing on human trafficking, lawmakers heard testimony from law enforcement and prosecutors about the need for more civil penalties for businesses and consumers in the trafficking industry. More attention, they said, is also needed for victims through safehouses and treatment centers.
Though they usually enter courts as juvenile offenders facing drug possession or theft charges, there has been a shift in recent years to see young girls who have been trafficked as victims, said Angela Ellis, an associate judge in Harris County.
Thompson said in an interview that she hopes to target businesses with more civil penalties. The goal, she said, is to make sure “that the social burden, at the end of the line, will be on them.”
“We don’t want to penalize the kids to where we have them so scared that they go back to prostitution,” Thompson said.
Human trafficking, said Harris County Constable Ron Hickman, has become a “pervasive part of daily life.” But, he said, the tools to deal with the problem are relatively limited, because the only option is to press criminal charges.
He asked lawmakers in the Joint Interim Committee on Human Trafficking to develop a “unique approach to the occupations code” and consider changes to the regulation of massage parlors. Lawmakers, he suggested, should also consider making it illegal to use unlicensed services at massage parlors.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s 2011 Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report recommended adding trafficking to civil codes regarding licensing for businesses, and even giving the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission the authority to refuse a license to businesses previously found trafficking. The report also asked the Legislature to increase the statute of limitations to five years, allowing trafficking victims more time to seek civil damages from former traffickers.
Senate Bill 24, which was passed during the 2011 legislative session expanded the TABC’s authority to refuse licenses and extended the statute of limitations, as Abbott suggested.
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan told the lawmakers that those civil code changes have been instrumental in helping law enforcement intercept more of the criminal enterprises.
Civil penalties for traffickers have been effective, he said, and if lawmakers "significantly raise the monetary cost," they might be even more successful.
Although lawmakers and advocates have long agreed that Texas is a national center of human trafficking, they are still trying to figure out what to do about it.
Over the past year, a joint interim committee of the Texas Legislature organized by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, has been taking testimony around the state. On Tuesday, the committee will be in Houston, recognized as an epicenter of human trafficking due to its international airport and location on the I-10 corridor.
Trafficking is generally a federal crime, but last year a report issued by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott noted that the state receives the largest number of sex trafficking hotline calls around the country, accounting for 12 percent of the national total. In response to the report, Gov. Rick Perry publicized and signed into law Senate Bill 24, which allows for judges to sentence a trafficker to up to 99 years in prison.
But human trafficking is a uniquely difficult crime to quantify, and that means it's tough to tell whether the harsher penalties are yielding any results, said Maria Trujillo, executive director of the Rescue and Restore Coalition in Houston.
"There isn't really a way to measure whether it deters people because it is such an underground crime,” Trujillo said. “We don't even have a starting point in terms of the number of people involved. It's hard to find hard data.”
The attorney general’s report also addresses that issue, saying that collecting information about the crime "is still a significant challenge, because victims are difficult to identify, and until recently, there was not a standardized reporting system for human trafficking cases.”
Advocate Dottie Laster, who runs her a consulting service on trafficking prevention, said that even though law enforcement seeks to follow federal guidelines that distinguish between prostitution and trafficking — which changes whether a person is is perceived as crime a victim or as a perpetrator — they often get it wrong. Federal laws consider anyone under 18 a victim. The Texas Supreme Court agreed in a 2010 case, but Laster said that even in that instance, nobody ever went after the trafficker, a 36-year-old man who had sold a 13-year-old.
She said cases fall through the cracks, and that if local law enforcement chooses not to investigate or does not have the resources to do so, "there is not a push for punishment.”
"What I see more often is victims getting arrested,” she said. "They don't go after the trafficker."
Laster said federal efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking have been obstructed by disagreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which can invade a space looking for illegal immigrants before an investigation into trafficking can be done.
"I need to see a change in culture and attitude,” Laster said, “to where we are hostile to this crime, not just apathetic to it.”
Trujillo said that results, measurable or not, will only come after a concerted effort to educate judges and law enforcement. She said Tuesday's hearing will be about improving training.
"We would talk to a DA's office and they wouldn't know there are new tools, new punishments,” she said. “Those laws will be more effective once they know they can use them.”