Bill would clear prostitution convictions for victims of human trafficking in Maine

Posted Oct. 24, 2013, at 5:46 p.m.
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.
Contributed photo
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill proposed by a Scarborough lawmaker would allow Maine’s courts to vacate prostitution convictions from the records of those who are victims of human trafficking.

The move is needed because victims of human trafficking often face difficulty moving on from the situation that saw them exploited, and can be haunted by a record that could prevent them from landing jobs, said Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who is sponsoring the bill.

“These people need to be able to put the past behind them and move on with their lives, and not have this dogging them forever with a background check,” she said in a recent interview.

A system by which victims can see their criminal records scrubbed is one of the policies supported by the Polaris Project, a leading national group against human trafficking. In August, the group published a report that gave Maine mixed reviews for its efforts to fight modern-day slavery.

The state was credited for a law signed by Gov. Paul LePage in July that added “sex trafficking” as a crime under Maine law and expanded the definition of human trafficking in the state to include sex trafficking, as well as any case of sexual assault, sexual exploitation of a minor or kidnapping in which the offender threatened the victim or withheld the victim’s passport or immigration documents in order to force them into labor or prostitution.

However, the group would like to see Maine — and every other state — make stronger efforts, such as increasing training for police officers, providing victim assistance and other measures.

In total, 14 other states have enacted a law similar to the one proposed by Volk.

Volk said she was driven to action in part by the August report. She contacted the Polaris Project earlier this year to find out what she could do to help. The group encouraged her to work on the bill, and provided her with data, according to Britanny Vanderhoof, Polaris Project’s policy counsel.

“It’s really about allowing victims to move on from their trafficking experience,” Vanderhoof said Thursday. “We have found that once people are out of that situation, they feel this sense of hopelessness or concern about trying to find a job, especially if they have prostitution convictions on their record. It can be humiliating. It haunts them.”

Proponents of the legislation say that prostitutes are frequently the victims of traffickers. Calls to Polaris Project’s national trafficking hotline in 2011 and 2012 were more than double the number in the two previous years.

The area in Maine from which victims are calling the hotline is also growing: In 2011, more calls came from Portland — 12 of 46 total — than any other city (second-place Bar Harbor had just four calls). In 2012, Ellsworth tied Maine’s largest city for the highest number of calls at eight each, followed by Monmouth with five.

“We can’t naively think that we’re safe here in Maine, and these are other states’ problems,” Volk said. “Human trafficking is on the rise in Maine, and we need to be proactive in helping victims because one life shattered by this horrendous crime is one life too many.”

Complete language for the bill has not yet been drafted, so it’s not yet clear exactly how a victim would appeal for a conviction vacancy, or what proof he or she will be expected to provide. Requirements vary in states that have enacted similar laws.

There also is no readily available data on the efficacy of provisions such as the one proposed by Volk in helping victims, such as the success rate of appeals or the number of cases filed under the law.

But Volk said that even if only a handful of victims saw their records cleared and their lives improved, she would be happy.

“Even if it changes one person’s life, it’s worth it,” she said.

Volk’s bill will be taken up by the Legislative Council, a group composed of the party leaders from both chambers of the State House, which will decide whether it will be considered by the full Legislature in its second regular session, which begins in January.

BDN reporter Seth Koenig contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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