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Johnson files Help Not Jail for Prostitution Bill

ROBYN H. JIMENEZ | 4/3/2017, 12:35 p.m.
Texas filed approximately 3,500 prostitution cases during the last fiscal year, 90 percent of which were women. The cost for ...
State Rep. Eric Johnson (second from right) is flanked by other state representatives at the opening of the Committee meetings for the 85th Texas Legislature in Austin. Texas House of Representatives

Johnson stated that Abbott’s veto statement was limited to one concern; he didn’t want to lessen the penalty for willful, repeat offenders.

“My problem with his statement is that he misses the entire point of the legislation. I mean, aside from the fact that he never even talked to anyone about it and vetoed it without any discussion, which is in my opinion, less than respectful of the legislative process. That’s not how it should be done. But he’s a new governor, or at least he was a new governor at the time, so maybe he doesn’t know. But a phone call at some point or a meeting at some point to discuss it once it was clear that the bill was moving through the process would have been appropriate,” Johnson digressed. “But that aside, based on his detailed statement, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the purpose of the bill. Because he’s talking about primarily women … But you have to understand that these women are not willful, repeat offenders. They are offenders, true. They are repeat offenders, true. But ‘willful’ makes it seem as though they’re not acting under tremendous duress, and they are.”

Johnson stated that the vast majority of these women – between 65 to 95 percent of those arrested – were molested as minors, which can cause a spiral-down effect, leading to mental health issues, drug abuse, prostitution, on-going abuse, etc.

“So we’re talking about survivors of sexual assault. And the vast majority of them have some issue ranging from mental health issues to substance abuse issues. Some of them are homeless. Some of them have been sex trafficked,” he stated. “There’s all kinds of things that are going on in these people’s lives to where its only right to treat these folks as victims, not criminals. They are the victims of a crime and we should be doing whatever we can to help them get rehabilitated and help them get the help they need to get out of prostitution. Not saddling them with a felony that will keep them from ever getting a job, of ever getting housing, which in essence will trap them in a life of prostitution – make them where the only thing they can do is be a prostitute.

“And so, he doesn’t get the point at all.”

With an air of frustration in his voice, he went on to say that he is hoping to do a better job of educating the governor during this session about the purpose of HB 1218 and how it would work.

At present, when a person is arrested for the act of prostitution the first time, it is a class B misdemeanor. The second and/or third offense is either a class B or a class A misdemeanor. If they are arrested for prostitution after that, it becomes a felony.

“Which is pretty harsh given that most states don’t even prosecute prostitution as a felony at all,” Johnson said. “Texas is one of the few states that eventually prosecutes it as a felony after the third time, which in the grand scheme of things is really not all that many for someone who is actively on the street working as a prostitute.”