Protecting children from sexual extortion with tougher penalties

Hays County Jail cells
Hays County Jail cells (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (NEXSTAR) — A bill filed earlier this month by State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, would make sexual extortion of children a state jail felony, rather than a Class A misdemeanor.

House Bill 2974 would increase the penalty for anyone accused of blackmailing a child to send sexual content such as photos or videos, in exchange for money or sex acts.

“These crimes generally happen online,” Dale said during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday. “This bill addresses the reality of our modern era and specifically states that it applies to a threat, regardless of how that threat is communicated.”

Dale said under current Texas law, publishing the content, such as explicit photos or videos, is illegal, but blackmailing or threatening a child is not.

“Sometimes when you talk about increasing punishments for various crimes there may be opposition related to that,” Dale said, “but I certainly would challenge anyone to stand up in public and say that they are OK with this kind of behavior happening in Texas. I’m ready to take that challenge on.”

Steven Phenix with The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) said anything lawmakers can do to tighten the current law is a good thing.

The Refuge is a 50-acre development in Bastrop County where up to 48 teenage girls who are victims of sex trafficking can seek shelter and therapy. Right now the shelter is still under construction, but Phenix said when the doors open in December, it will be the largest facility of its kind in the country.

“These girls are scared to death,” Phenix said. “They are worried that this guys is going to come back to try to reclaim their property and hurt them. So if they get put away in a state jail for a long period of time it gives them a little more safety.”

Dale said HB 2974 would provide a sense of safety for victims who are seeking help at places like the Refuge.

“It will be there for the girls for as long as they need it,” Phenix said. “A shelter is 30 to 60 days. We are a year probably more, just as long as it takes.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of online extortion increased 150 percent from 2014 to 2016.

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