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Yet again, lawmakers poised to do little to help sex-trafficking victims

When it comes to child sex trafficking, Texas lawmakers are once again poised to focus on criminal enforcement this legislative session rather than providing resources to victims.

People who care for sex-trafficking victims have a common refrain: It's not if they'll run away, but when.

Despite a Texas Tribune child sex-trafficking series that revealed how lawmakers have drastically underfunded programs meant to help victims, the Texas Legislature is once again focusing on criminal enforcement instead of dedicating desperately needed dollars.

Though budget writers in the House and Senate are still working out the details of their proposals, there is no new money allocated specifically for programs to help sex-trafficking victims. A version of the budget progressing in the Senate puts $430 million more into the child welfare system than lawmakers did in 2015. But that is still less than half of the additional $1 billion the agency that is often responsible for the children most vulnerable to sex trafficking says it needs.

The Texas Tribune’s January Sold Out series examined how the state’s decade-long crusade against sex trafficking has focused on arresting and convicting pimps, but has largely failed to help their victims. These victims often end up behind bars themselves because there are so few places for them to go for services and rehabilitation. 

The handful of anti-sex-trafficking measures still on the move at the halfway point of the 2017 legislative session include efforts to help victims keep prostitution convictions off of their criminal records and to increase awareness of the signs of trafficking among truck drivers. A requirement that commercial driver’s license programs provide training on identifying and preventing human trafficking is among the changes in a broad anti-trafficking bill filed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

“Truckers across the country, and across this state, will be folks who know what trafficking is, what it isn’t, what red flags they should be looking for,” said Kirsta Melton, who leads the Texas Attorney General’s human trafficking unit and testified in favor of Thompson’s House Bill 29 before a House panel on Wednesday.

But Thompson's legislation primarily concentrates on cleaning up sex-trafficking statutes from previous legislative sessions. It also increases criminal penalties for promotion of prostitution offenses, which apply to individuals who help others sell sex.

At Wednesday's hearing, Thompson called the bill a step in the right direction to make Texas "a more secure state for our citizens and to be able to take a bigger bite out of this heinous crime.” 

House committees have advanced that bill and a second measure from Thompson aimed at sex-trafficking — HB 269 — that would help victims with prostitution convictions expunge their records. 

Sex-trafficking victims often have criminal records because of repeat arrests for prostitution — which becomes a felony after three convictions — and because their pimps may have forced them to do drugs or commit other crimes. These records make it difficult if not impossible for victims to get jobs or apartments when they are attempting to rebuild their lives.

“What’s missing in Texas is a victim-centric understanding of how human trafficking works in reality,” said Jamey Caruthers, an attorney with Children At Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit. “They are not guilty of these crimes any more than a hostage would be guilty of a crime.”

Another proposal from state Rep. Eric Johnson would increase the number of prostitution convictions needed for the offense to become a state felony from three to six. A similar bill passed with widespread bipartisan support in the 2015 legislative session only to be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who said he could not support reducing criminal penalties for “willful repeat offenders.”

When Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, laid out the measure in a House committee in March, he acknowledged last session’s defeat.

“It’s the willful part that I have a problem with — pretending like these are criminals who just can’t get straight and just want to do wrong,” he said. “I believe hearts can be softened and they can change their minds.”

Neena Satija and Edgar Walters contributed reporting to this story.

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