JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missourians from across the state attended a standing-room-only committee hearing to voice their support for a bill that could wipe the slate clean for minor sex trafficking victims.
The House general laws committee held a public hearing on HB 397, introduced by freshman Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, Wednesday evening. The bill was unanimously voted out of committee on Thursday morning.
Through nearly an hour of public testimony, committee members heard statistics, personal stories, and the why behind the measure. Those in support of the measure agreed that the bill was a step in the right direction to protect minors and sex trafficking victims.
Under HB 397, 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.
While Missouri has made many improvements in the last several years, Jessica Seitz, public policy director of Missouri KidsFirst, noted that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There are still some improvements that need to be made in all of our laws to ensure that all victims are identified and served. And this is a great bill to move that forward,” said Seitz. “Right now not all of our laws treat victims as victims and this right now is essentially a loophole where a young person can be charged with prostitution when they are a victim of trafficking.”
The bill would not eliminate the offense of prostitution for a minor but allow being a minor to be an affirmative defense. Coleman explained that keeping the law in place allows police officers to arrest minors for the offense and get them away from the pimp. If it wasn’t a crime for an adolescent then they would have no opportunity to remove them from the situation.
The average age a girl enters into prostitution is 14-years-old and her average life span is 7 years, according to statistics presented to the committee. While young boys are also forced into commercial sex work, young girls are forced down that path at a much higher rate.
“When I talk in public, I bring up that this is not what you see on SVU, CSI, the alphabet soup of law enforcement entertainment that is out there. These are our children, these are children from our community, and I tell the public these children are our responsibility,” said Kelly Schultz, director of the state Office of Child Advocate. “But when I’m talking to you guys I am being literal. These children, 60 percent of them, are literally our responsibility.”
Schultz took a step back from her role as an advocate to tell a personal story.
As a foster parent of more than a dozen children, Schultz has only had one child, whom she called “Rapunzel,” run away. The child was brought to her home after midnight only wearing a bikini. Rapunzel was later arrested for prostitution in the company of the person the state was trying to protect her from — back when she was a minor.
“We systematic treated her as a criminal and we helped build that history and that future for her,” said Schultz. “On a personal level and..on a professional level, this is something we absolutely need to address in Missouri and avoid. It is our responsibility.”
No one testified against the bill and no member of the committee voted against it, but during the hearing, Rep. Peter Merideth wondered if the bill language was too broad.
“I think this is a really good, well-intentioned bill with some really good things in it. But I’m a little confused about aspects,” said Merideth.
He wondered if the expansion of the definition of street gang activity was so broad that it would have unintended consequences that would end up doing harm to others. He also believes that enhanced penalties don’t necessarily reduce the likelihood of a crime being committed.
Merideth specifically questioned the language that would classify those convicted of child abuse or neglect twice in three years as a pattern of criminal street gang activity. He wondered if a parent who abuses the child would still qualify under the broad definition.
“I just don’t want to accidentally include a whole lot of other crimes that aren’t about sex trafficking,” said Merideth.
“I think when you look at the structure of the elevation, you are saying this is within sex trafficking. If we need to bring some clarity to that, that’s fine but I don’t agree with your interpretation,” said Coleman.