The U.S. Senate passed the Child Protection Act of 2012 on Tuesday, legislation several years in the making that will help protect victims of child pornography, sexual abuse and trafficking by strengthening law enforcement’s ability to apprehend the culprits.
The act — which was introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and approved just prior to Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January — passed in both the Senate and House of Representatives. The bill now awaits President Barack Obama’s signature.
According to the U.S. Department of State, thousands of men, women and children are trafficked to the U.S. for sexual and labor exploitation. Many of these them are lured from their homes with false promises of a better life. Instead, they are entered into prostitution or other types of forced labor, according to the department.
“We need to provide law enforcement with every tool they need to crack down on the most vile criminals — child sex predators and traffickers — and protect the innocent young people who fall victim to these heinous crimes. This is an issue we can all agree on, and I’m pleased Congress has passed this important measure in a bipartisan fashion,” Cornyn said in a release. “I hope the President will sign this bill swiftly to bring greater justice and protection to victims and allow law enforcement to take immediate steps to stop child predators and traffickers in their tracks.”
Currently, the maximum prison term for the possession of child pornography depicting minors 18 years of age and younger is 10 years. The Child Protection Act would make the maximum prison term 20 years.
Current law gives courts the option to issue protective orders restraining harassment of minor victims and witnesses. After Obama signs the bill, however, the law will require judges to issue one if they find that a child witness is the target of harassment or intimidation.
By allowing courts to make this finding on their own motion, judges are encouraged to take an active role in protecting child witnesses in their courtroom, Cornyn said. The provision also fills a gap in current law by creating criminal penalties for intentional violation of these orders.
Other provisions originally outlined in the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act — legislation introduced by Cornyn and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last year — that are included in the bill entail the reauthorization of funds for Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces, which train executive and judicial officials on how to deal with cases of child sexual abuse.
“Law enforcement and advocacy organizations across the country are hard at work to crack down on the scourge of human trafficking,” Cornyn said. “Unfortunately, this is a pervasive crime that continues to destroy the lives of victims. Sadly major cities in Texas, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, are hubs for human trafficking due to a variety of factors, including major transportation thoroughfares, access to the border, and a high population of runaway youth who are more at risk to fall victim to trafficking.”
The term “human trafficking” and details of its underworld have been defined as a serious domestic problem in recent years. Current penalties for certain child exploitation offenses still do not recognize the aggravated nature of that crime when it is committed against young children.
In response to this, the Dallas office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Homeland Security Investigations and leaders from 17 other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies formed the North Texas Trafficking Task Force two years ago.
Designed to combine expertise, training and law enforcement to identify human traffickers and prosecute them while also protecting victims, the NTTTF also consists of six police departments from the DFW area, including Plano.
With the human trafficking industry being even more secretive than other crimes, ICE relies heavily on tips from the public to dismantle these organizations. To help further educate the public, the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign was created to increase awareness.
“You can’t put a dent in it unless the public is aware because that is where the majority of our leads come from,” said Carl Rusnok, spokesman for ICE Central Region in Dallas.
With 29 press releases on ICE’s website pertaining to child pornography and exploitation in November alone, it’s clear that these crimes are increasing and the problem is mounting. Many people still do not understand that these threats are so close to home, said Shawn McGraw, group supervisor for the NTTTF.
“We view it as the public is not aware of it and people are still kind of shocked when you bring it up to them,” he said. “This is relatively new — it’s a learning process. It’s still so new people don’t know what it is or that it’s happening in their backyards. We have very few experts in it.”
In an effort to evolve the law to more effectively keep traffickers behind bars, prosecutors will typically use whatever laws they can to combat this crime, McGraw said.
“It’s taking the tool out of the tool belt and using it best you can,” he said.
If they’re not charged with trafficking, they use similar charges like harboring or a multitude of violations in order to create the outcome they want. The more arrests that are made, the more ICE and the NTTTF can help perfect the law.
Last year, the NTTTF made 48 criminal arrests, but there’s a lot more work to do, said Sean Carson, assistant special agent for the NTTTF. Cornyn’s act will hopefully enable them to do just that, he said.
“Our goal is to get more cases before judges to get these violators taken down,” Carson said. “They’re selling human flesh for profit. They’re earning large sums on a commodity that is reusable and resalable, much more than narcotics or illegal arms.”