AUSTIN, TX— - State lawmakers met Thursday, eager to get on the front lines of the war against human trafficking.
From prostitution to forced labor, human trafficking has been described as modern day slave trade.
The global, multibillion dollar industry is a dark underworld that is more active online than it is in the streets and it's happening in Texas.
“Unless we cut off the demand at the root, we won’t be able to disrupt the cycle of trafficking and protect vulnerable youth,” said Brooke Axtell, communications director for Allies Against Slavery in Austin.
Axtell was sold into sex trafficking by her nanny while her mother was hospitalized, she said. Axtell was 7 and living in the Dallas area.
“It’s not a victimless crime so it’s something that’s deeply devastating and unjust,” said Axtell.
The Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence met Thursday to discuss the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and how it could benefit state laws.
JTVA ups the financial penalties for both traffickers and buyers and aims to help victims to ensure they are treated like victims and not criminals.
Kirsta Melton, who heads the human trafficking division of the Texas attorney general's office said JTVA also provides resources for law enforcement and prosecution to start human trafficking specific units.
“So that people are out looking for these types of crimes, identifying victims, identifying traffickers,” Melton said.
The victims are often hidden in plain sight and most don’t self-identify as victims—they need to be found and rescued, Melton said.
JTVA will establish a victims’ fund, financed by the penalties paid by offenders, to help survivors get on a road to recovery.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) authored and sponsored the Justice for Trafficking Victims Act alongside U.S. Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas) in 2015. The act passed the U.S. House and Senate with bipartisan support after Cornyn and Poe cited Axtell’s story during their testimonies.
President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in 2015 but now individual states need to address how to implement the law and the recommendations made in the Justice for Trafficking Victims Act.
The more recommendations Texas adopts, the more money the state will receive in federal grants.
One of the recommendations is to give law enforcement more tools to target the demand side of sex trade—zeroing in on buyers or so-called “Johns.”
“Right now it’s not very scary for a man to try to buy sex, it’s not very scary to go on Backpage[.com]and look at the 400-plus ads,” said James Caruthers, the senior staff attorney at Children at Risk.
Rep. Mike Schofield, a Katy Republican, questioned why not go to the source and stop the traffickers? “We’re going to bust the oil field worker for you know, whatever he is looking for,” Schofield asked if that strategy, going after low-middle class men would make a difference or shift the focus away from catching the “ringleaders.”
Caruthers responded, “You almost have to start targeting those ‘Johns’ and we have to start deterring those ‘Johns.’”
While the victims are hidden in plain sight, Caruthers said the traffickers are so insulated they are difficult to find and prosecute.
Melton, the head of the AG’s Human Trafficking Unit, said traffickers are “smart” and “sophisticated.”
Caruthers said buyers or ‘Johns’ are easier to catch and drive the supply chain for sex trade.
“It’s important that no matter how uncomfortable it may be we have to address the reality that this is happening because there is a demand for it,” Axtell said.
Texas has the second-highest number of human trafficking incident reports in the country, according to the National Human Trafficking Resources Center.
The center received 401 calls to and 141 reports of human trafficking from Texas in the first three months of this year.
In 2015, there were 330 cases of human trafficking in Texas, the National Human Trafficking Resources Center reports. Most of the victims were women and more than one hundred were minors.
State lawmakers are also looking at starting a statewide data base to track prostitution arrests to connect buyers to their sellers.
A statewide tracking system and the federal recommendations will be debated during the next legislative session.
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