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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers hear sex-trafficking horror stories

Here’s an article from the Lewiston Tribune:

Lawmakers hear sex trafficking horror stories

Victims testify to Idaho House panel during hearing on bill making patronizing prostitute first-offense felony

By William L. Spence

BOISE - A “landmark” proposal to make patronizing a prostitute a felony on first offense earned a split vote in the Idaho House on Thursday following an emotional, two-hour hearing.

Members of the House Judiciary and Rules Committee seemed to agree with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Brent Crane, about the need to "send a strong" message that this activity isn't welcome in Idaho.

However, most also wanted to learn more about the issue. They voted 11-6 to postpone action until they could hear from law enforcement officials.

Crane, R-Nampa, told the committee that going after the buyers who finance the sex trade is the best way to combat human trafficking and prostitution in Idaho.

"We have a problem," he said. "In all 50 states, we punish the prostitutes, we punish the pimps, but we go lightly on the 'johns.' We don't punish the buyers; that's a common theme wherever you go. That policy isn't working. I think we need to send a strong message to these individuals that this has got to stop, that it's unacceptable."

Under current law, solicitation is a misdemeanor on the first and second offense, before it becomes a felony. Crane's bill would make it a felony on first offense. He said no other state has taken this step.

"Should you decide to move this forward, it would be landmark," he said. "You would be at the forefront of combating sex trafficking, not just in Idaho, but in the entire country."

Several sex-trafficking victims testified during the hearing, offering harrowing stories about the extensive abuse they suffered, often from a very young age.

"On an average day, I'd see five johns," said one girl, who went by the initials B.D. "I was being raped multiple times every day. ... The johns are just as dangerous as the traffickers. Please make sure they pay for buying me."

Another girl, with the initials M.S., said she was 13 when she was forced into prostitution.

"I want you to understand, there would be no prostitution if there weren't any buyers," she said. "I was held against my will for a very long time. Many times I'd tell grown men my age, but they didn't care. They just wanted sex. I was severely abused and raped. It was horrible. There are so many more women out there who need the help this (bill) can provide."

Mike Maglish, the CEO of INsideOUT Cares, an anti-trafficking organization in Meridian, said there's been an 800 percent increase in online sex trafficking just in the past five years.

"There are no 'houses of prostitution' that we refer to in our laws," he said. "And the average trafficking victim starts between the ages of 12 and 14. This isn't adults making consensual decisions. It's easier now than ever for adults to get their hands on children."

The testimony clearly affected committee members, with several having to pause before speaking. However, they also wanted a better explanation for how stiffer penalties would actually change behavior and lead to a reduction in solicitation.

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, noted that sexual contact with a minor already is a felony on first offense. If that's happening in Idaho and not being prosecuted, then Crane's bill doesn't really get at the heart of the problem.

"We recognize that something needs to be done," he said. "My biggest concern is that we'll do something in the name of doing something, and it won't actually make a difference - but we'll tell ourselves it did, and the right thing won't happen because of that."

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, was disturbed that Crane didn't discuss his bill with law enforcement officials or representatives from the court system - and that, by his own admission, the evidence that prosecutors are seeking convictions under current statutes "is very slim."

"When it comes to policy, we need to do more than just 'send a message,' " she said. "We need to address the issue correctly, and the way to do that is by getting everyone around the table. From my perspective, we should be patient and address it correctly."

However, Coeur d'Alene Rep. Luke Malek - who sits next to Perry on the Judiciary Committee and is running against her in this year's 1st Congressional District Republican primary - argued strongly in favor of sending Crane's bill to the full House with a favorable recommendation.

"There is a time for being patient in policy, but I don't believe this is that time," he said. "This is a human rights issue. There are crimes we view as so abhorrent, we set aside all other aspects of the criminal justice paradigm and say we have to make a statement against this. That's exactly what this bill does. I think it's extremely effective from that standpoint, in saying we will not tolerate this behavior."

Malek noted there is some evidence from Scandinavia that harsher solicitation penalties do lead to a reduction in prostitution.

Although most committee members wanted to hear from law enforcement officials and prosecutors and weren't comfortable making an immediate decision on the bill, they also made it clear they don't want to delay action so long the legislation doesn't have time to move through the House and Senate this session.



Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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