HOUSTON – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott joined Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Senfronia Thompson at a Houston event this week touting human trafficking prevention legislation.

“As startling as it is to imagine that human trafficking is occurring in our state, the reality is that this form of modern day slavery does take place,” Van de Putte said. “We must do everything possible to severely punish those who profit from this heinous crime and help victims regain their dignity.”

The state leaders gathered to show their support for Senate Bill 24 and House Bill 7, which contain legislative recommendations from the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force’s 2011 report. The task force, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 2009, is chaired by Attorney General Abbott.

Van de Putte and Thompson are carrying the anti-human trafficking bills in each of their respective chambers of the legislature. If enacted, SB 24 and HB 7 would amend current Texas law governing the prosecution and punishment of human trafficking. They would also provide civil remedies against human traffickers and would implement new protections for human trafficking victims. On March 15, SB 24 was voted favorably out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Its companion bill, HB 7, was voted favorably out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee on March 14.

“Human traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to essentially enslave their victims and compel them to work against their will for little or no pay,” Abbott said. “By continuing to foster cooperation among law enforcement agencies at all levels, Texas will become increasingly hostile territory for human traffickers. As authors of legislation that will give vital new tools to law enforcement, Sen. Van de Putte and Rep. Thompson – with support from Gov. Perry – are leading the charge against human trafficking in the state of Texas.”

Task force report

The 2011 Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report was published by the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the task force and its 47 members. In addition to informing the legislature about the nature and scope of human trafficking in the State of Texas, the task force’s 2011 report contained recommendations for the 82nd Legislature. Pursuant to those recommendations, SB 24 and HB 7 propose to create legally distinct definitions of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Compelling prostitution of a child would be punishable as a first-degree felony and be added to the list of “3g” offenses.

Under both bills, human trafficking offenses would be added to the list of crimes for which a life sentence is automatic upon subsequent conviction. The legislative proposals would also require an offender who is convicted of sex trafficking to register in the Texas Sex Offender Registry.

The lawmakers’ proposed legislation would also offer greater protections for children who fall prey to human traffickers. Under both bills, the parent or guardian of a child human trafficking victim would be authorized to seek a protective order against their child’s trafficker. The legislative package would also allow courts to treat child victims in sex trafficking cases in a manner consistent with their treatment in sexual assault cases. Judges would also be given discretion to order that convicted human traffickers serve consecutive – rather than cumulative – prison sentences.

Additional legislation under consideration this session includes HB 3000 and SB 1436, which would create the continuous trafficking of persons offense, a first-degree felony with terms that range from 25-99 years to life, which the governor called on the Legislature to create in August 2010.

Modeled after Jessica’s Law, continuous trafficking of persons applies to offenders who commit human trafficking two or more times during a period of 30 days or more. The legislation also requires notice of bail reductions, requires a two-thirds vote of the Board of Pardons on Paroles for release on parole and makes continuous trafficking of persons a crime eligible for automatic life without parole for a subsequent continuous trafficking conviction.

A cooperative approach

During their joint appearance in Houston, Abbott, Perry, Van de Putte and Thompson explained why human trafficking prevention requires a cooperative approach by all levels of law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocacy groups.

“Less than 10 years ago almost no one knew what human trafficking was, or how big a problem it would become. Now one of the world’s most heinous and prevalent crimes, human trafficking demands attention,” Thompson said. “Texas was one of the first states to really address this, and today we continue to be at the forefront of this issue. This session we are on the verge of passing several key pieces of legislation that address not only the victims of this crime but the perpetrators that prey on them.”

An example of a coordinated effort is the North Texas Trafficking Task Force – a joint initiative that included the Attorney General’s Special Investigations Unit, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and six North Texas police departments. The NTTF recently completed successful undercover operations during the 2011 Super Bowl that resulted in 133 arrests.

“Trapped between the law and the lawless, victims of human trafficking suffer under inhumane conditions, forced into activities they’d never imagined with their captors threatening to kill them, or even their families, if they don’t comply,” Perry said. “In Texas, we must do everything possible to ensure more people don’t fall into the trap of human trafficking, and to make sure that the people behind these insidious acts pay the price for their crimes.”

Abbott noted that a collaborative approach to prosecution helps prevent human trafficking.

Successful prosecutions

In a Houston case that was jointly prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, a federal jury convicted a human trafficker of forcing young females to engage in unpaid prostitution – and sentenced him to almost 34 years in prison. This spring, the Attorney General’s Office will assist the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston with another domestic sex trafficking case. According to investigators, six defendants transported women and children from Texas to other states, where they were coerced into prostitution.

Abbott also emphasized the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force’s ongoing efforts to identify, investigate and prosecute trafficking cases statewide. Recently, a joint investigation by task force members determined that a woman and her three children were trapped in a forced-labor situation after they were smuggled into El Paso through a tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border. Two of the smugglers were identified and indicted on trafficking charges.

Prior legislative efforts

The Texas Legislature created the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force under HB 4009 during the 81st Legislative Session. The legislation by Van de Putte and state Rep. Randy Weber established a statewide task force of law enforcement officials and crime victim services personnel who serve on the frontline of the state’s battle against human trafficking. In August 2010, the Governor’s Office awarded the Office of the Attorney General and the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force $291,000 to fund a financial analyst, a peace officer and a prosecutor to assist in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of human trafficking cases statewide.

All three positions have been filled and are currently participating in anti-trafficking efforts. Other measures taken in the fight against human trafficking include an International Conference on Human Trafficking hosted by Thompson in October 2010.  

For more information about the Office of the Attorney General’s battle against human trafficking, see a copy of the 2011 Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report and visit the agency’s website at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.