Lawmakers hear calls for tougher laws on human trafficking

A Sedgwick County deputy district attorney and a victims’ advocacy group appealed to legislators Tuesday for tougher laws to combat human trafficking.

Chief among suggestions outlined are increased penalties for “johns” who buy sex. The age of sexual consent in Kansas is 16, and that allows men who pay 16- and 17-year-old girls for sex to face a Class C misdemeanor, which carries the same type of penalties as driving with a suspended license.

“We need to do more to attack the guys who are the purchasers,” Sedgwick County Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett told members of three House committees.

It’s not realistic to charge them with the same offense as men who pay for sex with girls under age 14, since the state doesn’t have that much prison space, Bennett said. But he suggested tougher penalties that increase with each offense.

Kristy Childs, executive director of Veronica’s Voice, a Kansas City-based group that provides recovery services to victims of prostitution, suggested requiring those convicted of human trafficking and paying for sex to pay hefty fines to fund services for the sex industry’s victims.

The suggestions come as sex trafficking receives more attention in the state. During the 2011 fiscal year, domestic violence and sexual assault programs reported working with 26 human trafficking victims, including five in Wichita and three in the Newton-Hutchinson area.

Meanwhile, Wichita police statistics show human trafficking cases have more than tripled in four years, with 28 cases last year.

Kansas sits on one of the major routes favored by pimps and others who would exploit children in the sex trade and forced labor. Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced last week that he wants to improve efforts to fight trafficking.

Bennett, speaking before the House Federal and State Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Corrections and Juvenile Justice committees, said many prostitutes flee after law enforcement and prosecutors identify and begin prosecuting pimps, johns and prostitutes. He said that since the state’s Secure Care program has not been funded, prosecutors’ only choice is to charge victims with prostitution, hold them in juvenile detention and then dismiss the charges later. Secure Care is a program intended to provide a safe place for child victims to stay while being assessed by social workers.

“It’s the only approach we’ve got right now,” Bennett said.