Eagle editorial: Target sex trafficking

As a U.S. senator, Sam Brownback was unflinching in his leadership against global human trafficking, and unwilling to be deterred by partisanship or other obstacles. It is to Gov. Brownback’s credit that he is now working with Attorney General Derek Schmidt to tackle sex trafficking in Kansas – and it is a tragedy that our state is the site of such horror.

As described last week by Brownback and Schmidt, the measure would create a new crime for commercial sexual exploitation of a child and make exploitation of those in their late teens a mid-level felony on first offense and a top-level felony on any later convictions. (Those who exploit children younger than 14 already can be subject to Jessica’s Law, which carries a life sentence.) Mandatory fines for people convicted of human trafficking and related sex crimes would be used to create a Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Fund to improve services for victims.

Brownback said the state also is working with the University of Kansas to study and seek strategies and policies to combat human trafficking.

Schmidt aptly credited authorities in Wichita and Sedgwick County with taking on these tough cases.

“They’ve been focused locally on this problem in a holistic manner for a number of years,” he said.

And it was Marc Bennett, a member of the state’s Human Trafficking Advisory Board and now Sedgwick County district attorney, who last year helped call legislators’ attention to how current laws fall short by allowing men who pay 16- and 17-year-old girls for sex to only face a Class C misdemeanor.

A recent case in Sedgwick County illustrated how shocking sex trafficking can be, and how far current law can go in punishing perpetrators when the victims are young. Wichitan James Lamont Brown received 17 life sentences this month for having raped two Kansas City, Kan., girls after their mother drove them to Wichita multiple times so he could have sex with them. Their mother pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated human trafficking and faces a sentence of life without parole for 25 years for the crimes, some of which occurred when her daughters were 11 and 12 years old.

Now Kansas, which passed its first human-trafficking statute in 2005, needs to crack down on those who exploit older children as well, and provide law enforcement statewide with the training and tools needed for this fight. A 2011 state-by-state analysis flunked Kansas and 25 other states for their weak sex-trafficking laws.

“With this important legislation, Kansas will take great strides forward in the fight against modern-day slavery,” Brownback said last week. “This will not only strengthen our ability to severely punish traffickers, it will give us valuable new tools to protect vulnerable young victims so they can have hope of a new life.”

The bill proposed by the governor and attorney general deserves to be a high priority during this legislative session, putting Kansas on record as a place where sexual exploitation of children and teens is punished severely as well as prosecuted aggressively.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman