By Jen Dykstra and Evan Mintz, 2010 summer interns
The phrase “human trafficking” usually summons images of internationally smuggled laborers and trans-national sexual exploitation. However, at last week’s meeting of the state Criminal Jurisprudence and the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committees, testimony from district attorneys, police and non-profits demonstrated the horrors are much closer to home. The hearing shook our preconceptions about the reality of human trafficking in Texas and the challenges facing law enforcement.
Given Texas’ massive border with Mexico, sprawling international airports, and global shipping ports, it is no surprise that state government would take up the issue.
What we learned is that a vast amount of trafficking occurs exclusively within U.S. borders. Many spoke of teenage runaways whisked into forced prostitution or labor within 48 hours of living on the streets. Even more shocking was that, according to the Austin Police Department, 20 percent of all human trafficking victims travel through Texas at some point — mostly on Interstate 10.
What Texas Has Done and Needs to Do
During the 81st session, the legislature passed HB 4009, which requires the Attorney General to establish a task force to develop policies, procedures, data collection, and training to assist in the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking. It was a strong step, even after Texas became one of the first to codify human trafficking as a separate offense from kidnapping.
Many who testified enumerated the shortcomings Texas, and the rest of the nation, faces in fighting human trafficking. Some problems are obvious — funding programs, training local law enforcement officers, and general public awareness. However, a recurring theme was how to break the cycle of girls willingly returning to prostitution after age 18.
The testimony from district attorneys, police, and non-profits painted a picture of a vast system exploiting men, women and children.
Law enforcement is currently ill-prepared to deal with an industry hidden within our cities, and police often come at the problem indirectly. Police often only catch human traffickers after charging the victims with a crime. Young girls exploited by traffickers are arrested for prostitution, and only through investigations of this crime do police learn about threats and coercion inherent in human trafficking. For this reason, enhanced training for local law enforcement on identifying victims of human trafficking is an essential next step.
Despite steps to specifically criminalize involuntary trafficking, this distinct problem is often viewed through the lens of voluntary immigrant smuggling. And many district attorneys are willing to rely upon familiar misdemeanor charges, such as unlawful restraint or prostitution, rather than the felony charge of trafficking.
And in a Texas-sized irony, girls not old enough to legally consent for sex can still be charged for prostitution. The age of consent in Texas is 17, but girls younger than that are frequently charged with prostitution. It is contradictory and wrong for girls too young to consent to be arrested specifically for doing that very thing. To fix this, Mandi Kimball, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs for Children at Risk, proposed that the legislature add a minimum age requirement for the charge of prostitution. This change would help protect the exploited, while encouraging law enforcement to focus on the perpetrators of the crime, not the victims.
Texas Has More Work to Do
While Texas is making strides, there is more that can be done. Look for upcoming legislation in Texas starting next January, and contact your state representatives to support funding and legislation aimed at human trafficking.