AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed House Bill 1771 by Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, a measure that would have banned prosecuting people younger than 17 years old for prostitution.
A wide range of criminal justice and child advocates supported the bill as it passed the Texas legislature, saying taking teenagers to jail for prostitution punished the victim of sex trafficking; in worst cases, they said it reinforces a cycle of crime.
In his veto statement, Gov. Abbott said he worried about “unintended consequences” because of how broad the bill was.
“The bill takes away options that law enforcement and prosecutors can use to separate victims from their traffickers, and it may provide a perverse incentive for traffickers to use underage prostitutes, knowing they cannot be arrested for engaging in prostitution,” Abbott wrote. “Efforts to reduce trafficking are to be commended, and I have signed numerous laws this session cracking down on it. I look forward to working with the author on ways to separate victims from their traffickers, both physically and economically.”
“I am devastated by the veto of HB 1771, which would have prevented children who are victims of human trafficking from being criminally charged under the current prostitution statute when they have been commercially, sexually exploited by adult predators,” said Rep. Thierry. “These children deserve to be completely protected and rehabilitated, not further victimized and criminalized in the juvenile justice system. I’m deeply hurt and disappointed that in 2019, the state legislature and law enforcement still sees our children as “prostitutes” instead of as rape victims.”
Instead of an arrest, the officer would take the teenager to a family member or the Department of Family Protective Services. No one in the legislature voted against it.
“Many if not most people get into the sex trafficking trade between 12 and 18. So they get in at early ages,” said Will Francis from the National Association of Social Workers.
Abbott’s overarching concern was how broad the bill was, making no difference between people trafficked and people acting on their own.
Will Francis says the veto puts advocates back another two years because teenagers rarely decide to become prostitutes on their own.
“If they do it’s because they’re leaving abuse. It’s because they’re leaving some sort of terrible situation. It’s because of financial issues. I mean the reasons why they get there are bad enough that we don’t need to criminalize that,” said Francis.
Abbott writes he’ll work with bill supporters next session to better distinguish between who is trafficked and who’s on their own. The bill author says she looks forward to that next session.
“I have spoken with the Governor’s office and have been assured that they will work me during the interim to try to correct this conflict in our current law and create better policy. I am committed to protecting vulnerable Texas children and look forward to tackling this as a major priority of mine next session,” said Rep. Thierry.
Texas does have “safe-harbor” laws which allow judges to let someone off who’s been trafficked against their will.