In Missouri, a 16-year-old cannot legally consent to have sex but that same adolescent can be charged with prostitution and one incoming-lawmaker is looking to change that.
Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman has filed her first piece of legislation which aims to fight sex trafficking and protect children. The pre-filed bill, HB 397, makes three distinct changes with the intention of combating sexual exploitation while putting state law in line with federal standards.
“There has been a tremendous amount of work done,” said Coleman. “What we have in place just doesn’t go far enough.”
The issue was brought to her attention while she was campaigning for the opportunity to represent her community — which includes parts of Jefferson and St. Louis Counties — in the General Assembly.
One of the women in Coleman’s district is a sex trafficking survivor and a veteran, who also does a lot of work in both of those areas. The constituent shared her story and shared the issue facing other youth in the state.
“I don’t know if you can hear someone’s personal story like that and not be moved, and then to find out our laws are not written in a way that allows appropriate punishment for those that are benefitting and allows those being victimized to be charged, without wanting to do do something,” said Coleman.
The problem was multifaceted, she noted. The safe harbor provisions aren’t quite enough to do what they were intended to do, survivors aren’t always treated as survivors, and the statutes don’t adequately cover those profiting off of sex trafficking.
So, after looking at the laws in other states, conversations with stakeholders, and a lot of research, Coleman filed a bill to address the problem.
HB 397 would expand the definition of gang activity to include commercial sex trafficking, eliminate the coercion portion of affirmative defense for minors, and allow for those convicted of prostitution while a minor to have that record expunged.
The changes would put Missouri statutes in line with those on the federal level and other states that are having better success combating sex trafficking and commercial sex with children.
Under Missouri law, a minor cannot consent to sex but can be charged with prostitution. There is an affirmative defense for a minor charge with prostitution but it includes being under the coercion of an agent. Dropping the coercion requirement is an effort to protect children, according to Coleman.
“The idea is to try and make it so those that are victims are treated as victims and given resources rather than being criminally charged,” said Coleman. The same theory applies to allowing previous prostitution convictions of minors to be expunged.
And broadening the definition of gang activity “allows prosecutors to go after those who are financially benefiting, but not necessarily involved on the ground level.”
She noted that there are those who are involved in the sex trafficking trade making decisions that have no contact with the children and the definition change would allow prosecutors to go after those guys.
“It is such an obvious problem with a clear cut solution that other states have been doing…if there is a way I can help then how could you not?” asked Coleman.