Friday, April 24, 2015

by Grier Weeks

Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed a major human trafficking bill, 99-0. The vote ended weeks of high-profile fighting between Democrats and Republicans. Now, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 crosses over to the House of Representatives.

PROTECT has a strong interest in this legislation for two reasons. 

First, our HERO Act of 2015 is attached to the JVTA, thanks to the steadfast support of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). The HERO Act would institutionalize one of the most successful federal counter-child-exploitation efforts ever—ICE’s Cyber Crime Center—and authorize continued growth of the H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps, which trains wounded warriors to hunt child predators. (Disclaimer: the National Association to Protect Children does not accept government funding.)

The human trafficking bill is also important to PROTECT because it extends its reach beyond the normal scope of trafficking to child pornography crimes—and victims. This is an area where PROTECT has years of investment and expertise, and we want Congress to get it right. 

By including a new special assessment on child pornography crimes, the Senate drove forward a policy PROTECT has long advocated: making the predators pay. Since 2006, we’ve argued for taking money from criminals and giving it to victims and cops. Sen. Cornyn is the most powerful lawmaker in America to champion that cause.

Unfortunately, the JVTA doesn’t quite get there. As the bill stands now, assessments on child pornography criminals would make up the lion’s share of revenue, but targeted efforts to combat child pornography would be almost an afterthought when it came to spending. No money would be available for direct victim compensation, though nonprofits would get new federal grants.

We are grateful to Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) for sharing our concerns about this and making improvements to the bill. Sen. Heller added the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces to the list of authorized uses for the trafficking fund, enabling the Attorney General to direct money to the actual units that interdict child pornography trafficking, if she chooses.

Sen. Cornyn inserted an important provision that would require that payments into any future victim compensation fund—a fund PROTECT recently testified to Congress should be established—be satisfied before the JVTA assessment can be collected. Whether or not Congress would ever walk through that door after this bruising battle, the provision does signal—to the world and to the House—the principle that victims should come first. 

The JVTA arrives at the House just two and a half months behind another Senate bill, the Amy and Vicky Act, aimed at restitution for child pornography victims. In a March hearing on that legislation, House Judiciary Committee members indicated they want significant changes to the Senate language. Both the Committee and the Justice Department have signaled interest in creating that federal victim compensation fund for child pornography victims.

One possible solution now is to kill both these birds with one stone. Create the long-overdue compensation fund for child pornography victims, as a way of making the Amy and Vicky Act truly helpful to large numbers of victims (not simply the token number who retain lawyers to pursue restitution). Then separate out the special assessment revenue coming from child pornography offenses and send half of it there for yesterday’s victims. Direct the other half to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, for today’s victims. Funds now targeted to child advocacy centers for victim services could come out of the trafficking fund’s matching appropriations for health and medical services.

Finally, we should care enough about this battle to rely on more than just the funding that can be collected from prison-bound predators. We need serious appropriations going into both the trafficking and victim compensations funds, reflecting our commitment to protecting children.

In a rational world, we wouldn’t make these distinctions between “trafficking” and “child pornography.” Treating children as sexual commodities is the same human rights atrocity whether a child is raped on camera for trade or sold for sex by a pimp. But in the real world, the distinctions really do matter a lot. Law enforcement, social services and nonprofits work in silos. If the law doesn’t get it right, the bureaucracy will surely make it worse.

The good news is that leaders like Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) already share these pro-victim, anti-predator values. Hammering out a solution can only get easier from here.