Texas has a strong record against sex trafficking, but Congress has work to do

Originally appearing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Janet Jensen discusses new, tougher legislation against sex trafficking.

This article originally appears in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You can read it in its entirety here.


It may seem inappropriate with everything facing our nation right now — a pandemic, an economic shutdown, a presidential election — to insist we still need to bear down on a yet another crisis, the appalling crime of human trafficking. But bear down we must.

Texans can take pride that our state is a national leader in this cause, with a large array of organizations dedicated to helping victims and Gov. Greg Abbott in the forefront of the fight. The governor, working with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, has created a clemency process for victims who committed crimes — such as drug offenses — while they were under traffickers’ control but who deserve consideration for the circumstances of those crimes. 

Passing new legislation cracking down on human trafficking and providing more help for its victims would not only be the right thing to do, it would be the politically smart thing to do.

Human traffickers usually operate in two spheres: forced sex work and forced labor. There is considerable overlap between the two. Many women forced into work say they are also exploited sexually.

Every state is infected by human trafficking. All try to combat it, but results vary widely. The Protected Innocence Project issued a national report card in 2019 that gave several states, including Texas, As. But many got Bs, and many more, including California and New York, drew Cs. That is deeply disappointing.

The federal agencies most engaged in going after traffickers are the FBI, Homeland Security and the U.S. attorneys’ offices. But catching, prosecuting and convicting these criminals is frustrating work, partly because there’s competition with other urgent law-enforcement priorities and partly because the traffickers are very good at insulating themselves. 

Prosecutors need their victims to testify against them and that can be life-threatening, not to mention emotionally draining. And for every trafficker sent to prison, there are plenty of eager replacements.

Just 7,000 human trafficking cases were prosecuted worldwide in 2012, according to a report by the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. It’s hard to get good data about such cases, but what we know indicates there’s been little or no increase since then. In 2019, U.S. prosecutions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 declined for the second year in a row. 

That needs to change. Even more important, a 20-year-old law needs to be replaced with a version that has more teeth. The traffickers keep evolving their operations. So must law enforcement.

There is cause for optimism. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has the leadership role in passing new, tougher legislation. Portman is the author of six bills to improve victims’ services and strengthen law enforcement, so his dedication to the cause is absolute. And the support is bipartisan. Portman’s Democratic co-sponsor is Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut whose commitment is equally solid. 

Right now, asking Congress to focus on an issue that’s out of the headlines may seem like a fool’s errand. 

But think about it this way: In the middle of a campaign, both parties need to prove to voters they can overcome their differences and get things done in the public interest. Passing new legislation cracking down on human trafficking and providing more help for its victims would not only be the right thing to do, it would be the politically smart thing to do.

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