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Lawmakers again focus on criminals more than sex-trafficking victims

Six months ago, a Texas Tribune series exposed how the state's decade-long crusade against sex trafficking has done little to help victims — especially children. The 2017 Legislative session, which wrapped up on Monday, continued that trend.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
The Harris County Jail houses more than 8,000 inmates at any given time. For three months last year, 17-year-old Lena was one of them.

Six months ago, a Texas Tribune series exposed how the state's decade-long crusade against sex trafficking has done little to help victims — especially children. The 2017 legislative session, which wrapped up on Monday, largely continued lawmakers' trend of focusing on criminals more than victims.

Here's what lawmakers did — and didn't do — on the issue of sex trafficking during the session.

  • Continued focus on criminal enforcement. This year, the Legislature increased the penalty for "promotion of prostitution." People charged with promotion aren't suspected of directly selling sex but rather of benefiting from the transaction by driving the seller to meet the buyer or posting an advertisement for sex online. Prosecutors say increasing the penalty will help deter people from getting involved in human trafficking; opponents worry it will unintentionally sweep up trafficking victims, too. The bill awaits Gov. Greg Abbott's signature.
  • More public education/outreach on sex trafficking. New bills sent to the governor's desk would require truck drivers to receive training on the issue and mandate new places — from strip clubs to abortion clinics to hospital emergency rooms — that must post signs aimed at reaching potential trafficking victims.
  • Another tool to go after businesses that may be facilitating prostitution. Hundreds of massage parlors across the state openly advertise prostitution services but are difficult to go after — and even harder to implicate in a human-trafficking case. A new bill waiting for the governor's signature tweaks nuisance laws, making it easier to shut down massage parlors that may be bad actors. 
  • A small grant for child-trafficking victims. The governor's office will receive $1.3 million per year to create a grant program specifically for child-trafficking victims, aimed at providing them with services like housing and counseling. However, behind closed doors, lawmakers stripped out a proposal to create a $3 million grant program aimed at helping all trafficking victims. That continues a pattern first begun in 2009, when lawmakers called for the creation of a $10 million-per-year victim assistance program but never appropriated the money for it. 
  • A funding boost for the state's beleaguered child welfare system. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services will receive an extra $500 million over the next two years — about half of what child welfare officials had asked for — mostly to hire more personnel. Child welfare advocate Katie Olse said the increase would lead to "modest improvements, or at least stabilization of a very shaky, underfunded system." The Legislature also ordered the child welfare system to perform a study on how to best help trafficking victims who are in foster care. 
  • They tried — and largely failed — to lessen criminal penalties against those who may be victims of sex trafficking. Many trafficking victims end up in the criminal justice system themselves for charges like prostitution, drug possession and theft — crimes that their trafficker may have forced them to commit. A bill that would have helped expunge their criminal records sailed through the House but died in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Another bill aimed at reducing penalties for selling sex never received a vote in either chamber (similar legislation in 2015 had passed with widespread bipartisan support, only to be vetoed by the governor).

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Here's how lawmakers stripped funding from trafficking victims, behind closed doors. 
  • Early on in the 2017 legislative session, it was clear that lawmakers appeared poised to yet again focus on criminal enforcement of trafficking rather than providing resources to victims. 
  • Read the Texas Tribune series on how hollow rhetoric and a broken child welfare system feed Texas' sex-trafficking underworld.  

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Courts Criminal justice State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature