Last month, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged in Florida with two counts of soliciting prostitution in connection with a massage parlor tied to an international human trafficking ring.

Perhaps what is most notable about the entire sordid affair is how truly rare Kraft’s arrest was. The sad truth is that Texas’ longtime approach to combatting exploitation is completely backwards: there would be no supply of sex trafficking victims without the persistent demand for commercial sex. 

Yet, more than 90 percent of sex trafficking victims report being arrested for crimes related to their trafficking. Over half report being arrested more than 9 times. As a result, trafficking victims are arrested, tried and convicted for crimes they didn’t choose to commit, and this charge is often prostitution.

In Texas, we have taken great strides to address the vile criminal enterprise of sex trafficking. To truly end this industry, however, we must recognize that commercial sex exploitation is a gateway to human trafficking.

Indeed, one study on prostitution in Harris County found that only six percent of men who purchased sex illegally reported ever having been arrested for it. In contrast, 92 percent of those arrested for prostitution were sellers, arrested and charged with the crime of being exploited. The vast majority were women, and many were transgender. 

These people are not criminals; they are victims, and they need victim services, not more jail time.

The problem is the lack of services available to make leaving the industry remotely possible, and most of our current resources require drawing victims farther and farther into the criminal justice system. For women struggling to find housing or employment outside the grip of a pimp or trafficker, help feels far out of reach.

Nearly all people charged with selling sex share common characteristics, including substance abuse, mental illnesses, homelessness. Above all, they often have a history of sexual abuse, of profound trauma, and of an inability to meet one’s most basic needs. These are the driving forces behind individuals entering the commercial sex trade. 

These same vulnerabilities are what put individuals at the highest risk of being trafficked, and at the same time, why they are arrested many times. The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to adequately address such complex problems. 

That’s why I’ve introduced HB 3206, which was heard in the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence this week. 

The concept is simple: the bill diverts law enforcement attention to those that fuel the illicit sex market, rather than the victims of it, by increasing fines on those convicted of purchasing sex. These fines will go into a newly established fund to be used exclusively for pre- and post-arrest services, including housing, substance abuse and mental health services, peer support, and trauma informed care — wrap-around services that our prisons cannot possibly provide. 

HB 3206 also ensures young girls are treated like victims, not criminals, and eliminates the felony enhancement for prostitution, because victims need help instead of a longer rap sheet.

HB 3206 is a powerful and effective way to fight the demand for purchased sex, reduce prostitution and sex trafficking, increase public safety, and save taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, though, HB 3206 is an important step forward for victims of exploitation.

Editor’s Note: The above op-ed by state Rep. Jessica González is part of a series of guest columns by members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. The series will run for the duration of the 86th Legislative Session.