AUGUSTA, Maine — “I could tell you stories here today that would make you throw up.”
Those were the words of Detective Sgt. Steve Webster, speaking Thursday in support of a bill that would help victims of human trafficking get their lives back on track. Webster said that as an officer in South Portland, he’s often on the front lines of what he described as a growing, underreported human trafficking problem in Maine.
The department is currently helping one woman who was sexually abused as a child and suffers from drug addiction, he said. She left her home state for New York City, where she was ensnared by a human trafficker and forced into prostitution, Webster said. The woman’s pimp later brought her to the Portland area, where police caught up with her. She’s currently staying in a hotel while local officials struggle to find the best way to help her.
Webster said that victims often refuse to help police catch the men responsible for trafficking them, fearing conviction themselves. With little or no support, they often turn back to their abusers, he said.
“These pimps, not only do they beat [their victims] up, they’ll get them hooked on drugs. They’ll say, ‘I’m your daddy, you come back to me,’” Webster said. “This girl, if she weren’t put up in a hotel, I can tell you where she’d go. She’d go back to New York, back to that pimp who beats her up, who sells her body and leaves her with nothing.
“I believe in giving people the opportunity to help change their lives,” he said. “This bill, if worded correctly, could do just that.”
The bill — LD 1730, An Act to Assist Victims of Human Trafficking — was taken up by lawmakers for the first time Thursday during a public hearing of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Several groups — including law enforcement, women’s groups, advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, social workers and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland — spoke in support of the measure. No one spoke in opposition.
The bill was the subject of brief controversy last fall, when the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council initially turned down the bill for consideration this session. Ben Grant, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the bill was a ploy by its sponsor, Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, to “soften her edges,” causing an outcry from Republicans.
The Legislative Council reversed its decision when Volk appealed their denial. Since then, Volk has tweaked her bill in an effort to ensure its easiest passage in the full Legislature.
In its current form, the bill has four parts: It creates an affirmative defense for victims facing prostitution charges and allows victims of human trafficking who are forced into prostitution and convicted of that crime to appeal to the state to vacate their conviction. It makes victims of human trafficking eligible for the state’s victim compensation fund, which can be used to cover living expenses while the victim makes her or his way back into mainstream society. Lastly, it makes dealing drugs to prostitutes a felony.
On its face, the bill is budget-neutral.
Volk and other advocates said that prostitution convictions for victims of human trafficking make it nearly impossible for survivors to turn their lives around.
“Criminal records inhibit the ability of some victims to move forward with their lives because they can no longer obtain certain jobs or loans, or go to school as a result of the stigma that is attached to having to report a conviction for prostitution,” Volk said. “I have also heard of women unable to secure housing because landlords perform background checks.”
Destie Hohman Sprague, program director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a member of the attorney general’s task force on human trafficking, said calls from Maine to a national trafficking hotline numbered nearly 200 in 2012, and that barely scratches the surface of the problem, she said.
“We know this crime is significantly underreported and the prevalence is far higher than the calls indicate,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also testified in support of the bill, generally, but said the group would be forced to oppose the measure if the provision that stiffens penalties for furnishing drugs to prostitutes remains intact. That measure would send more people to jail without addressing the real problem of demand in the human trafficking market, said policy counsel Oamshri Amarasingham.
“The 40-year ‘War on Drugs’ has been a failure, it’s done nothing to reduce demand. All it’s done is expand incarceration rates,” she said. “This behavior is already illegal, and can be prosecuted at a high level, but it’s not reducing demand.”
The Judiciary Committee will consider the bill again during its next work session.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.