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Texas is the first state to make buying sex a felony. Will this help trafficking victims?

Texas charted new legal territory by becoming the first state to make buying sex a felony, a move signaling a crucial change in how the justice system has long approached prostitution.

The state unanimously passed HB1540, which was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, to crack down on so-called “johns” who pay for sex, in an attempt to shift punitive blame away from those who engage in prostitution, many of whom are often victims of trafficking. The law goes into effect Sept. 1.

“We know the demand is the driving force behind human trafficking,” said Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson who authored the bill. “If we can curb or stamp out the demand end of it, then we can save the lives of numerous persons.”

While some experts say the law reflects a new wave of systemic reform and could help trafficked sex workers by deterring demand, others say it misses the mark and instead will further tie the victims up in the legal system.

The new law came together after the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, a group formed by the state Legislature in 2009, presented its recommendations, the Houston Chronicle reported.

On top of increasing the penalty on paying for prostitution, to a maximum of two years of jailtime for the first offense, the Texas law also expands felony charges against traffickers who recruit minors at treatment facilities and youth centers, the newspaper reported.

The new law also added a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in prison, for those who trespass on treatment center properties, and enhanced penalties for anyone caught selling drugs or committing other drug-related crimes within 1,000 feet of the centers, according to the newspaper.

“This law is a rethinking of the traditional supply side in prosecutions that tended to target the women who were involved in these activities and not the buyers,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law School. “It’s also coming from a growing awareness that oftentimes, those involved are from a vulnerable class.”

She said the law also aligns with similar approaches around the country like offering sex workers pretrial diversions, which allows them to go through alternative sentencing options rather than spending time in jail or prison. The intent is to focus on rehabilitation rather than on the punishment, she said.

“It’s really unfair to someone who is a victim to prosecute them rather than try to help them escape their situation and get their lives back on track,” she said, adding that the law could serve as a model to other states that may be considering similar measures.

Other local advocates also see the law deterring the buying of sex as a good move. “Back in the days, basically you would get a fine,” said Juan Cano, one of the chairs for the Rio Grande Valley Anti Human Trafficking Taskforce, according to NBC 23 in Rio Grande. “It gives law enforcement another way to charge those who are purchasing sex. What it does is basically enhances, and it goes to a state felony which is entitled to jail time.”

While accurate numbers on sex trafficking are hard to pin down, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, reported over 22,000 victims of trafficking in 2019 nationally, and added that the number of online situations of sex trafficking reported to the hotline increased by more than 45 percent during the pandemic.

A 2016 study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, stated that there are approximately 79,000 minor and youth victims of sex trafficking at any given time, which has cost the state $6.6 billion.

But while some are hopeful, other experts say the law will have an opposite effect on sex trafficking.

Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Marymount University Law School who focuses on human trafficking, said while the law may be well-intentioned, it will end up entangling victims in the legal system and take valuable funding away from the resources they actually need.

“Putting individual ‘johns’ in jail will do absolutely nothing for victims of trafficking,” she said. “In fact, it harms them because evidence demonstrates that the more resources that go into law enforcement approach, the more that victims lose because resources that ought to be going towards things like victim benefits, social services support, and legal advocacy, is still unavailable and maybe even diminished because more resources are going toward a dominant criminal enforcement approach.”

Kim said what often plays out in practice is that survivors are “rounded up” in the same operations as those buying sex, and either become criminalized themselves or enmeshed in investigations as witnesses, which often re-traumatizes and re-exploits them.

One way to improve the law could be to add a provision in the bill or additional law that promises blanket immunity for the providers of the sex services from any kind of arrest or legal charge and does not compel other participation unless they themselves want to, she said, adding that anti-trafficking efforts can only work if victims feel safe around law enforcement.

Kim did say that some of the other provisions of the Texas law that aim at traffickers who prey on women and minors may be more useful in helping victims.

“If felony convictions against ‘johns’ is the only thing lawmakers want to focus on, then the implementation of that law will sustain the exclusion and marginalization of trafficking victims,” she said. “If they really want to help, then they have to address the root cause like inadequate housing, underemployment, and discrimination.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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