Political Horizons: Human trafficking legislation being considered

Even hardened state troopers who raided a massage parlor Thanksgiving week privately expressed revulsion at the living conditions of the girls accused of “prostitution by massage.”

The images on television certainly seemed to confirm their opinions.

And the raids were still being cited as Exhibit 1 a week later in media coverage of and testimony before a legislative commission putting together a package of bills for the upcoming session that would address Louisiana’s problem of “human trafficking” of youngsters for sex.

That the youngest person arrested in the Port Allen raid was 39 years old is but one unfortunate blemish to the compelling images. The other flaw is that statistics indicate that “human trafficking” is not that big of a problem in this state and that the laws Louisiana already has on the books are among the best and most comprehensive in the nation.

But, as mentioned in testimony before the 17-member Joint Human Trafficking Study Commission, the emotional issue of young girls and boys being forced by adults to sell their bodies energizes many different constituencies to work towards a common goal. That includes supporters who otherwise would square off on other issues, such as same-sex marriage.

It’s a “hot button” for young people, said Michelle Crawford Rickert, a professor at LeTourneau University, a “Christ-centered” college in Longview, Texas.

For the past decade the religious community — ranging from traditional denominations to the charismatic congregations — has pushed the federal government and state legislatures to enact sweeping laws that crack down on the sex trade.

The images of teenagers being smuggled into the U.S. from eastern Europe or southern Asia are not really true for Louisiana, said state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, who chairs the task force. This state has a high ratio of runaways and homeless youth, some of whom are forced into the sex trade by organized crime, he said.

Rickert said Louisiana should focus on disrupting the business processes.

Make it a crime, for instance, for the cabbie who drives a teenaged prostitute and doesn’t call authorities, or the hotel manager who sees a child in his lobby but does nothing.

Not so fast, says District Attorney Ricky Babin, the chief prosecutor in Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.

Louisiana law already criminalizes pandering and conspiracy. Those are charges that law enforcement and prosecutors can use against cabbies and hotel management who really are involved in a criminal enterprise without putting innocent people under obligation of trying to determine which teenagers are prostitutes.

Babin chairs the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, which is working on a package of bills to present in March that would untangle the web of special-interest crimes that have created inequities and inefficiencies throughout the state’s criminal code. For instance, stealing a telephone pole carries a much harsher sentence than stealing a person’s diamond ring.

Both are theft and the wording of the crime should be aimed at the value of what was stolen, rather than its importance to a special interest, he argues.

“I think everyone is well intentioned, but if you start tampering with the criminal code, there’s fallout from it,” Babin said, adding that the Sentencing Commission is not looking at human trafficking laws.

Major Paul Edmonson, who’s in charge of the Louisiana State Police Special Investigation Division, says that, like drugs, the Interstate 10-12 corridor serves as a major route for transporting prostitutes from big cities in Texas to big cities in the southeast. Then there is the new technology that makes it easier for criminals to find customers and get paid for providing prostitutes.

State Rep. Neil Abramson, who is helping to draft the package for the task force, is looking to tweak the existing laws and close such gaps.

The New Orleans Democrat drafted and sponsored the Louisiana laws that helped put this state among the elite as measured by groups such as Polaris Project and Shared Hope International.

The main focus of the 2014 legislative package, Abramson said, will be mandatory education for law enforcement and creating a revenue stream that would help support the services to help the youngsters forced into selling sex to integrate back into regular, everyday life.

“People need to know that human trafficking is not a victimless crime,” Abramson said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.