JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A measure aimed at combating sex trafficking and protecting minors is continuing to move forward, having received one chamber’s stamp of approval.

On Thursday, the Missouri House passed HB 397, sponsored by Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, in a vote of 147-10. The bill now heads to the Senate, where a few amendments added during the House perfection process are expected to start some debate.

“House Bill 397 further strengthens our protection for the child in Missouri,” said Coleman.

Under the measure, the definition of gang activity would expand to include commercial sex trafficking, being under the age of 18-years-old would be an affirmative defense for prostitution, and those previously convicted of prostitution while a minor could have their record expunged.

Protecting minors from commercial sex work and sex trafficking is a concept that gained bipartisan support. However, an amendment added during the perfect process and the potential unintended consequences had some hesitating on fully supporting the measure.

“I am going to vote for your bill because I think my concerns are valid but I also think the broader issue is far more important,” Rep. Gina Mitten told Coleman. “My hope is that if we need some changes, you will support me and work with me on the other side of the building for that.”

She raised concerns how the changes being made to “criminal gang activity” will impact minors and child. Coleman said she would be open to continuing the conversation about the impact of the changes.

A provision added by Rep. Phil Christofanelli during the perfection process has drawn criticism from Democrats in the Senate and labor organizations.

The amendment removed language in statute that exempts the activities of labor organizations and their members from the enhanced penalties for “criminal street gang activity.”

“It is absolutely ridiculous. It took protections out just for those folks,” Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh told the media. She said that provision will be discussed in the Senate, “because I am not putting any of these members in a position where they have to vote against a good human trafficking bill because it has something terrible in it.”

Supporters of the amendment disagree with Democrats’ interpretation, saying it simply cleans up old language where labor organizations have exempted themselves and their members from the consequences in the criminal code.

“No person, regardless of their affiliations, should be above the law,” said Christofanelli. “My amendment eliminated this archaic carve out and treats all Missourians equally under the law, as our Constitution demands.”

The underlying purpose of the bill drew a large amount of support from both sides of the aisle.  

“The purpose of this bill, as we heard yesterday, is to treat kids as kids. I think everyone in this body right now agrees with that goal and that a kid ending up in prostitution is treated as a victim and not a criminal is extremely important,” said Rep. Peter Merideth.

The need for the bill was highlighted during a public hearing last week when Missourians from all over the state testified in support of the measure.

The average age a girl enters into prostitution is 14-years-old and her average life span is 7 years beyond. More than 2,000 children were trafficked last year, according to statistics presented to the House.

In Missouri, a 16-year-old cannot legally consent to have sex but that same adolescent can be charged with prostitution. Coleman’s bill would change that. Many called the bill a “step in the right direction.”

Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at alisha@themissouritimes.com.