Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Sex trafficking law has unintended consequences

Compassion | Police and experts say the business has moved back out to the streets
by Charissa Koh
Posted 12/05/18, 04:57 pm

Recent government efforts to curb sex trafficking might have also caused setbacks to the effort to help victims, police and rescue groups said.

In April, President Donald Trump signed a set of bills, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act from the House and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act from the Senate (FOSTA-SESTA), that holds websites directly responsible for sex trade that occurs on their platforms. Personal ads for sex workers on U.S. sites drastically decreased after the bill package became law, especially since that same month, authorities investigated and shut down, one of the worst offenders. Federal law enforcement charged top Backpage executives with money laundering and facilitating prostitution. The site was known for ads selling children for sex using code words like “fresh” and “Amber alert” to indicate how young the person was.

But the crackdown on online sex trafficking led to increased danger for many prostitutes. With decreased ability to screen and negotiate with clients online, they are going back to the streets to find work. Over the past few months, officers and those who help sex workers have noted an increase in prostitutes on the streets and a decrease in their average age.

Police in San Antonio arrested 296 people for prostitution between March 21, when the bills were approved by the Senate, and Aug. 14—a 58 percent increase from the same time period the year before, when police made 187 arrests.

Critics say the government could have used and other online platforms to track and punish the traffickers, who have now simply moved their business elsewhere. A Washington Post analysis found that after the initial drop in April, the number of online ads began to grow again, now on foreign websites the United States cannot regulate.

“FOSTA-SESTA was a good effort that brought national attention and awareness,” said Brooke Crowder, CEO and founder of The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking). “But, ironically, laws like these only send perpetrators deeper into the places that make it harder to identify victims and track their exploiters.”

Crowder is a Christian who runs The Refuge Ranch in Austin, Texas, a long-term, residential, therapeutic community for girls up to age 19 who have been rescued out of sex trafficking. She said that the practice will continue until people find a way to address the root cause: “idols of comfort and consumption which deaden our hearts and minds to what has true value and meaning.” She said funding should be spent on providing effective help for victims: “Putting our resources toward the care of the most vulnerable in our community has to be a priority. It’s always the children in our community who are exploited the most.”

Punishing the intellectually disabled

A Texas inmate with intellectual disabilities is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule his death sentence for a second time.

In March 2017, the high court ruled that Texas used outdated medical standards to determine intellectual disabilities. The justices sent back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals the case of Bobby Moore. Moore, 57, received the death sentence in 1980 after he, along with two other men, shot and killed a store clerk. In 2014, a Texas state court ruled that Moore was intellectually disabled and therefore constitutionally ineligible for execution. But the Court of Criminal Appeals said the state’s 2004 standard showed other factors could be behind Moore’s slow learning and poor functioning as a child and he could be executed.

This summer, the Texas court changed its medical criteria for intellectual disabilities, as the Supreme Court ordered, but upheld Moore’s death sentence again despite defense attorneys and prosecutors agreeing he was intellectually disabled. Moore’s lawyers appealed again to the Supreme Court in October, and Harris County prosecutors filed a brief last month supporting the appeal.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr wrote about Moore’s case in an op-ed for the Washington Post: “I am not an abolitionist on the death penalty. … But I also believe we must vigilantly observe the constitutional constraints on this ultimate sentence. In our constitutional system, courts must carefully adhere to Supreme Court decisions on all issues—especially on this vitally important subject of life and death.” —C.C.

The toll of drugs

The rate of overdose deaths in the United States last year was so high that it contributed to a lower average life expectancy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released three reports in November charting trends from 1999 to 2017. One report on mortality in the United States showed a dip in American life expectancy to 78.6 years. The CDC attributes the decrease to the rise of drug overdose deaths and suicides. Another report in late November showed more overdose deaths in 2017 than any other year in U.S. history. More than 70,237 people died last year from a drug overdose, 9.6 percent more than in 2016.

Most of those people overdosed on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid similar to morphine but 80 to 100 times stronger. Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, meaning it is highly addictive but has a known medical use. It is typically prescribed to cancer patients to reduce pain and is increasingly gaining popularity in the illegal drug market—even more so than heroin. —C.C.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a reporter for WORLD based in Austin, Texas. Follow Charissa on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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    Posted: Thu, 12/06/2018 09:14 am

    "Sex worker" is one of those PC suffused euphemisms I would hope Worldmag would decline to embrace. Do we want to validate that phrase and erode moral opposition to the world's oldest profession? Not to set myself up as your or anyone's journalistic style book, but can't you just use the perfectly good word, "prostitute" instead? Similarly, try to avoid the farce or charade of speaking of stripper bars as "gentlemen's clubs" or "adult entertainment venue" 

    Some years back Thomas Sowell offered up a dictionary of political euphemisms: "People's Democratic Republic" - the type of govt where you do as you're told or else you are shot. "National Liberation Movement"- militant group working to create a People's Democratic Republic.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Thu, 12/06/2018 11:00 am

    Honestly, you're just embracing your own version of political correctness by trying to "correct" World's use of language for political reasons. In this instance, the term "sex worker" is actually correct because it covers a broad array of sexually oriented services beyond actual prostitution, many of which have been hawked online through the kinds of shady sites that were targeted by this legislation.

  • Chrdoc
    Posted: Fri, 12/07/2018 05:52 pm

    As someone who has been actively engaged in the fight against human trafficking for 14 years, I agree with you Sawgunner, the term sex worker legitimizes the work of prostitution. It is not the world's oldest profession, it is the world's oldest oppression, as a judge friend of mine likes to say. 

    It is better to use the terminology of prostituted woman, or prostituted person. It's also important to avoid using "child prostitute", since this attempts to focus the identity of the child within their exploitation. Prostituted child is far superior.