We’re not in the habit of telling other states’ lawmakers what they should and shouldn’t take up in their legislative sessions. But we were disappointed that a much-anticipated piece of legislation to overhaul and toughen New Mexico’s sex trafficking laws, HB 237, never made it to a Senate vote after unanimously passing the House in the 30-day session that ended in February.
We encourage New Mexico lawmakers to pass HB 237 in the next legislative session and to follow Texas’ lead by establishing a customized clemency application “specifically for survivors of human trafficking or domestic violence.” Under the new protocol, established by Gov. Greg Abbott in February, Texas inmates and those seeking clemency can cite their experiences as victims of sex trafficking, coercion and violence when requesting relief from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
As Abbott said when announcing the new customized clemency application, the survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking deserve “a true path to redemption and restoration.” A pardon, he explained, “plays an important role in this redemption process, because it offers a second chance to survivors with criminal convictions resulting from their abuse or exploitation.”
Regular readers of this newspaper will know that we proposed a clemency process for sex-trafficking survivors in 2018 and were delighted when the governor’s office took up the cause. Indeed, we’ve long argued that punishing the many thousands of mostly young women and girls lured into the multibillion-dollar sex industry and enslaved each year is not just morally unsound, it’s terribly damaging.
Those forced into sexual slavery in our society, whether they be minors or adults, need healing, justice and understanding, not prison time and a criminal record that lessens their chances of turning their lives around. To borrow the governor’s words, a “true path to redemption and restoration” is not possible if victims are not freed from the ball and chain of a criminal record that often prevents them from obtaining gainful employment, a decent place to live, and the dignity they deserve as survivors.
Texas, we’re proud to say, has led the nation in understanding that trafficking human beings for sex is not a “victimless” crime. As Kim Robinson, CEO of New Friends New Life, a Dallas-based nonprofit that empowers formerly trafficked and sexually exploited women, teens and children, told our Allison Hatfield in an interview earlier this year, “Sex trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult.” Coercion can take many forms, including the threat of violence or the promise of money, drugs, shelter, food or clothes.
“It is critical to know that if this person is a minor,” explained Robinson, “force, fraud or coercion do not need to be present. When minors are engaged in commercial sex acts, it is automatically child sex trafficking — and it is a crime.” Anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking, though minors are the most susceptible to traffickers’ coercion and grooming tactics. While young men and boys are sold for sex, approximately 99% of all victims are young women and girls. Shockingly, 15 is the average age a girl is sold for sex in America.
Nevertheless, too many lawmakers in statehouses across the country still see prostitution as a “victimless” crime. Shelley Repp, executive director of the New Mexico Dream Center, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that provides services to survivors of human trafficking and homelessness, told us that state lawmakers have vowed to take up HB 237 again and that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a strong supporter of the bill, would immediately sign it into law.
HB 237 would increase prison terms for convictions and broaden the state’s legal definition of human trafficking to include the act of “harboring” or “patronizing” any individual “with the intent or knowledge that force, fraud or coercion will be used to subject the person to labor, services or commercial sexual activity.” Crucially, it would also raise the legal definition of “child” in crimes involving sex trafficking from 16 to 18, remove the statute of limitations for crimes involving human trafficking, and require sex offenders from another jurisdiction to register in New Mexico.
Many of these changes were rightly prompted by the fact that Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender and New York financier who died in jail last year awaiting sex-trafficking charges, had a second residence in New Mexico but under current law was not required to register as a sex offender in the state. According to affidavits for the federal case against Epstein, he flew minors as young as 15 to his sprawling New Mexico ranch where they were then molested.
Again, we encourage our neighbors to the west to pass HB 237 at the earliest possible date. Meanwhile, we urge Lujan Grisham to follow Abbott’s lead and work with her state’s parole board to develop a customized clemency application for survivors of human trafficking and domestic abuse.
Rep. Georgene Louis, co-sponsor of HB 237, was right when she said, “Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are social evils that greatly impact communities throughout New Mexico.” We Texans are well aware that those evils impact our communities in similar ways. But we’ve chosen to offer the survivors of those evils a much-needed “path to redemption and restoration.”
We sincerely hope New Mexicans offer a similar path to the thousands of survivors in their midst. Who knows, together we may just spark a national movement that not only cracks down on the heinous crime of sex trafficking, but also recognizes and works to restore the dignity of its once hidden victims.