Children under the age of 18 could no longer be charged with the crime of prostitution under the terms of a bill that unanimously passed the House on Tuesday.

House Bill 571, which aims to strengthen and clarify Mississippi’s human trafficking laws, would also give Child Protection Services more authority to investigate cases and to take custody of children who have been sexually exploited.

“This problem exists all around us,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, who sponsored the bill, in an email. “I’m proud of House members today for recognizing the severity of this issue in Mississippi. We are working together to strengthen our laws to help some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Rep. Angela Cockerham, who chairs the House Judiciary B Committee and defended the legislation Tuesday, said the trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors is a growing problem around the country and in Mississippi.

“This is a significant problem in Mississippi,” Cockerham said. “The incidents of human trafficking here have increased, even in the last year.”

In 2018, the Department of Public Safety recorded 26 incidents of human trafficking in Mississippi in conjunction with state and local law enforcement. Numbers for previous years were not immediately available.

In addition to clarifying that a child under 18 cannot be charged with the crime of prostitution, House Bill 571 would provide treatment protocol, including some money for therapy, for children who’ve been sexually exploited. It also would require law enforcement to notify CPS of any child who has been trafficked and would require CPS to train its social workers and foster parents to handle these child victims.

All of these measures, Cockerham said, would make it easier for Mississippi to help children who have been sexually exploited and identify other children who may be at risk.

“Right now, children can be charged (with prostitution),” Cockerham said. “And when you have them arrested, under state law it makes it harder for them to get the services they need. And if they could be charged, a child is much less likely to come forward and get help.”

In October, Gunn held a day-long summit on human trafficking in Jackson.

“Due to this legislation, Mississippi becomes a model for strong policy. Moving forward, we have every confidence that the practice will follow this policy, and victims will have a better chance of recovery,” said Sandy Middleton, executive director for the Center for Violence Prevention in Mississippi.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.