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People who buy or solicit sex from prostitutes in Texas can soon be charged with state jail felonies under a new law that ramps up penalties for a host of crimes related to sex trafficking in an attempt to deter the practice.

House Bill 1540, authored by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, also expands the definition of human trafficking — a first-degree felony in Texas — to include those who recruit trafficking victims from residential treatment centers that house homeless or foster children and minors who were previous victims of violence and assault.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously during the spring legislative session and will take effect Sept. 1. It is the first state law in the country that makes it a felony to buy sex from an adult, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

State Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat who previously served as the chief human trafficking prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said the new law continues the recent trend of Texas laws that shift criminal punishment away from women who are victims of sex trafficking and onto the johns who buy sex and the pimps who run the illegal trade.

“If you think about it, the easiest population that you can go after is the demand side,” Johnson said. “We are sending a really strong message that the demand is kind of the linchpin. We as a society are saying, ‘Boys will not be boys,’ and that buying sex is actually fueling the exploitation of another human being, and it’s not OK in the state of Texas.”

Though the Legislature has adopted a number of measures in recent sessions aimed at reducing sex trafficking, the illegal trade remains prevalent in Texas, particularly Houston. Sex trafficking has spiked in Texas during the COVID pandemic, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that recorded a 40 percent uptick in calls to its sex trafficking hotline last year compared with 2019.

Thompson’s bill included several recommendations from the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, a group formed by the Legislature in 2009 that includes members from more than 50 agencies and organizations and is run by the attorney general.

Among the provisions that will take effect next month is one that allows state officials to deny a liquor license to establishments that practice so-called drink solicitation, when employees such as bartenders charge marked-up prices for drinks in exchange for spending time with a customer.

The practice is considered a gateway to sex trafficking and other crimes.

Enhanced drug charges target pimps

The task force had also recommended establishing new protections for minors at child care or treatment facilities, where “pimps are free to approach vulnerable youths without impediment,” according to a task force report.

In addition to making it a first-degree felony for traffickers to recruit from those facilities, the new law establishes a Class A misdemeanor charge punishable with up to a year in jail for those who trespass on treatment center properties. And it enhances penalties for anyone caught selling drugs or committing other drug-related crimes within 1,000 feet of the centers.

“This bill protects the vulnerable children in foster care who are placed at residential treatment centers where pimps have been known to prey upon and lure those youth into sex trafficking,” Rep. Thompson said during a committee hearing in March.

Advocates pushing for reform of Texas’ sex trafficking laws have noted that sex workers and trafficking victims — and those historically incarcerated for sex crimes — are disproportionately women of color. They have urged lawmakers to instead focus criminal penalties on those who fuel demand for the sex trade, particularly those who pay for it.

Jamey Caruthers, an attorney for the Houston nonprofit Children At Risk, noted during the March committee hearing that the provisions of the bill that heighten penalties for drug crimes at residential treatment centers apply only to those 18 and older, meaning minors are exempt.

“These are kids with severe emotional problems, behavioral problems and substance abuse problems,” Caruthers said. “What we’re really after here are the pimps that are in the parking lot with a bag of weed waiting for a kid to come out, offering a ride. The next time that child is seen will probably be on a website … where ads are posted for buyers to purchase victims.”

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