Kansas Senate bill hopes to crack down on human trafficking - KCTV5

Kansas Senate bill hopes to crack down on human trafficking

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TOPEKA, KS (KCTV) -

The federal government calls it one of the most heinous crimes. Now Kansas wants to take a stand, expanding services for victims of human trafficking and strengthening penalties when those victims are part of a juvenile sex trade.

Senate Bill 61 left the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Thursday. Among other things, it would create a new crime of "commercial sexual exploitation of a child."

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who pushed to get the bill introduced, said it attempts to address a loophole that leaves 14- to 17-year-olds treated like adults in the realm of sex trafficking. In the realm of most unlawful sexual activity, anything involving someone under age 14 is a serious felony.

"In Kansas, Jessica's Law applies," Schmidt explained, "and the penalty for that crime can be life in prison."

If that same crime occurs with a child between 14 and 17 years old, the penalty is considerably less severe. The law would not change the penalty differential in all sex crimes, but it would address it in circumstances where someone is selling sex.

"Those kids are every bit as much a victim of a crime, even if they hold themselves out as a willing participant in the sex trade as a younger child." Schmidt said. "Nobody is a willing participant, particularly at that age."

The most common scenario involves a runaway or otherwise vulnerable teen. An adult arrives with attention, food and a place to stay and then leads the teen into selling sex.

"We're talking in this case about almost inevitably third parties who are benefiting financially from the conduct of that child," Schmidt said, "and that's what we're really taking aim at."

There is already a crime for human trafficking in Kansas, but Schmidt said there is some question about whether prostituting a teen would qualify under that law. It requires coercion or deceit, and often teens in these situations, he said, deny being victimized because they have a hostage-like connection to their so-called caretaker.

"We are more likely than not going to have a victim who says, 'I was not coerced. It was voluntary,'" Schmidt said. "Under the current [human trafficking] law, we have to prove coercion. Under the proposed change, it is much easier to follow the money. It becomes much less critical to have the testimony of the victim in order to get the conviction."

The resistance of teens led into the sex trade to see themselves as anything but willing participants also means, right now, that the best way to keep them from returning to that dangerous life is to prosecute them and put them in jail.

The new law would provide another option. It would allow for holding and treating the young sex workers as victims, with "rapid response teams" to mobilize with specialized support services. It would not decriminalize their activity, but provide a defense specific to their age that recognizes the implicit coercion involved.

"We are talking about a group of people here who are first and foremost victims of crime, even though the conduct they've engaged in is, in fact, criminal," Schmidt said. "The system to date has often treated them as separately and independently criminal themselves. That's not conducive over time to helping these kids break out of the cycle of dependency, get back on their feet and ultimately, we hope, lead a productive life."

The support services would be paid for through a "human trafficking victim assistance fund." The money would come from increased fines for those buying sexual services, often referred to as "johns," and those pushing them, commonly called "pimps." Those fines increase in all sex-for-money transactions, even those involving adults.

Along with penalty changes for those existing crimes, the terminology would change to eliminate the term "prostitution" in an attempt to lessen the stigma on the people, usually women and girls, performing sexual services.

The crime of "prostitution" would remain a class B misdemeanor and be called "selling sexual relations."

The crime of "patronizing a prostitute," would become "buying sexual relations" and would go from being a class C misdemeanor to a more serious class A misdemeanor for a first offender and a felony otherwise.

The crime of "promoting prostitution," would become "the sale of sexual relations" and increase from a class A misdemeanor to a felony.

The penalty portion of the bill relates solely to the sexual component of human trafficking, but the social services created would also be available to victims of labor-related human trafficking.

The bill would also create coordinated training for human trafficking enforcement through a human trafficking advisory board to include those involved in government, law enforcement, labor services, children's services and public health, to name only a few.

Testimony in the Senate this week brought no opponents and only two neutral speakers, whose primary concerns were funding.

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