On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a spate of bills addressing human trafficking. Though politicians on both sides of the aisle have been crowing about their good work here, the bills do very little to address labor trafficking, which comprises the majority of human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department. Rather, most focus on the more salacious prospect of sex trafficking, especially the sex trafficking of minors.
The sheer number of anti-sex trafficking bills that have been introduced in the new Congress (17), by both Democrats and Republicans, should tell us something. Either sex trafficking has suddenly reached epidemic proportions in America, or it's become the showboat du jour for preening politicians. Most signs point to the latter.
Of the 11 anti-trafficking bills passed by the House yesterday, few seem likely to really help victims or make any actual dent in the problem. But they do a fine job of making it look like legislators are doing something. They have snazzy, important-sounding names like the "Human Trafficking Detection Act of 2015" and "International Megan's Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking." They mandate reports! reclassifications! distance-learning courses on preventing trafficking!
As you'll see below, most of the bills merely add layers of bureaucracy and authorize funding to pad these layers. A few provisions may benefit trafficking victims. A few create perverse prosecution incentives that may swell the federal jail population, but not with sex traffickers. Here's a brief breakdown of the individual bills:
H.R. 181, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.): Changes federal criminal code to subject anyone who "patronizes or solicits" commercial sex from someone under 18-years-old to a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 10 to 15 years (up to life). Raises the standard under which a defendent charged with soliciting commercial sex from a minor must prove they didn't know the minor's age, from "a preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence."
The bill, known as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, would also give more money to state and local law enforcement for anti-sex trafficking task forces, rescue missions, and prosecution units; set up special court programs that include "continuing judicial supervision of (people) who have been identified by a law enforcement … as a potential victim of child human trafficking, regardless of whether the victim has been charged with a crime related to human trafficking"; and create state-administered outpatient treatment centers for trafficking victims, among other things.
H.R. 515, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.): Creates an "Angel Watch Center" within the Department of Homeland Security which will "facilitate the implementation of an international sex offender travel notification system in the United States and in other countries." The center would notify foreign countries whenever a U.S. citizen convicted of a child-related sex crime was traveling there, as well as collect such information from other countries (and provide money to other countries to help them comply)
H.R. 159, from Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.): Allocates money for the development and creation of a "national human trafficking hotline." Authorizes the Attorney General "to give preferential consideration in awarding Community Oriented Police Services grants" to applicants in states that treat minors engaged in prostitution as victims rather than criminals.
H.R. 460, sponsored by Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.): Implements a training program to help Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection officials learn "how to effectively deter, detect, and disrupt human trafficking."
H.R. 469, from Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.): Conditions eligibility to receive state grants for child abuse prevention on the state having a law or program dedicated to identifying and providing services for child sex-trafficking victims. Requires the HHS Secretary to report to Congress on child trafficking prevalence, state anti-trafficking practices, and "any barriers in federal laws or regulations that may prevent identification and assessment of children who are such victims."
H.R. 514, from Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.): Changes the status of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking to a Bureau to Monitor and Combat Trafficking and changes the way we classify foreign countries on our "special watch list" for those not living up to U.S. trafficking-elimination standards.
H.R. 357, from Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.): Requires certain federal personnel to take "a distance learning course on trafficking-in-persons issues," U.S. ambassadors to receive "specific trafficking-in-persons briefings," and "at least annual reminders" to various federal personnel about "key problems, threats, methods, and warning signs of trafficking in persons."
H.R. 468, from Rep. Joseph Heck (R-Nev.): Requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to give priority to staff training projects that relate to sex trafficking and authorizes the Secretary to make grants to private nonprofit agencies providing services to "runaway and homeless, and street youth, who have been subjected to, or are at risk of being subjected to, sexual abuse, prostitution, or sexual exploitation."
H.R. 246, from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio): Changes the language the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children must use for its "cyber tipline" from "child prostitution" to "child sex trafficking, including child prostitution."
H.R. 350, from Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.): Requires the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking to survey "state activities to deter individuals from committing trafficking offenses," review the "academic literature on deterring individuals from committing trafficking offenses" and identify "best practices and strategies." Also requires the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress about trafficking issues and authorizes grants for programs that assist trafficking victims with housing.
H.R. 398, from Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.): Allocates funding for the development and dissemation of anti-trafficking training for health care professionals.
The bill that worries me the most is the first one, H.R. 181. Making it a federal crime (with a minimum 10-year prison sentence) to so much as solicit commerical sex from a minor is exactly the kind of thing federal officials will use to entrap folks into agreeing to sex with an imaginary 17-year-old and then send them to prison for a few decades. Why would they do this? Because it's easier than catching actual sex traffickers, and they still get to indicate that they caught sex traffickers on all these new reports they have to submit, plus use the evidence of their good work to get more of the new funding going to the issue.
That may sound paranoid to some, but every week I read multiple local-news reports from around the country about "sex trafficking stings." And in all but the rarest of instances, these stings result in nothing but the arrest of adults engaged in consensual prostitution. Yet neither the cops, the "rescue" nonprofits they've consulted with, nor the media reporting on these stings make much of the distinction. Adult sex workers are frequently given the choice of prostitution charges and possible jail time, or programs for "trafficking victims." Then these programs—and the police departments and government agencies backing them—use all the women they've coerced into attending to artificially inflate the numbers of "victims," which in turn serves as evidence that more money, more stings, and more legislative effort needs to be expended. This is basically the incentive system that H.R. 181 would be federalizing.