Legislature's focus shifts to helping the victims of sex trade - Omaha.com
Published Monday, May 20, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:14 pm
Legislature's focus shifts to helping the victims of sex trade

LINCOLN — Posting photos of “johns” who hire prostitutes is out.

So are prison terms as high as 50 years for pimps who force minors into the sex trade.

But a Lincoln lawmaker says a bill pending in the Nebraska Legislature can still help the state combat sex trafficking, even without those provisions.

The question is whether the bill can make it through three rounds of debate in the dwindling days of the legislative session. Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill, who introduced the measure, said she's hopeful it will be scheduled for debate before lawmakers adjourn on June 5.

“I think there's still a heck of a lot of work that needs to be done” in Nebraska's response to sex trafficking, she said.

An estimated 27 million people worldwide are held against their will and forced into slavery or prostitution, according to the U.S. State Department. Estimates of the numbers in the United States range from 100,000 to 300,000.

Studies have shown that, on average, children are about 12 years old when they are forced into sex or labor.

Human trafficking numbers are not available for Nebraska, although a state task force is working to come up with an estimate.

Legislative Bill 255 would help address problems related to sex trafficking. However, it no longer represents the crackdown it once did.

As originally proposed, the bill would have published the names and photos on a public website of men convicted of soliciting prostitution. It also would have increased fines and penalties for a host of crimes related to forcing women and children into sex slavery.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill would have allowed a victim's statement to authorities to be used as evidence against a sex trafficker or pimp rather than requiring the victim to testify in court. Defense attorneys argued that the provision would have violated a defendant's constitutional right to face his accuser.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee amended the bill to remove those provisions. That was done to reduce the projected cost to the state and lessen the chances that it would run into opposition on the floor.

The bill, which was designated a speaker's priority, would still help in key ways, McGill said.

For example, it would add sex trafficking to the list of crimes that could result in child abuse charges against an adult. And those who solicit sex from a person under 18 could be convicted of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

The bill also would make minors immune from criminal charges related to prostitution. McGill said the change would recognize child prostitutes as victims rather than treating them as criminals.

She also said an important provision of the bill would require the state task force to research and recommend a model of rehabilitative services for people forced into the sex trade. The goal would be services to meet the emotional, physical and educational needs of sex trafficking victims so they could one day lead normal, productive lives.

Al Riskowski, director of the Nebraska Family Council, serves on the human trafficking task force. The task force is scheduled to release its first research report on July 1.

While information for the report is still being gathered, Riskowski estimated that FBI agents in Nebraska have rescued between 10 and 20 minors from forced prostitution over the past two years. Most have been in the Omaha area.

While Riskowski said he hopes the Legislature passes the sex trafficking bill this session, he was disappointed that the committee decided not to require publicizing the johns.

Those who buy sex aren't discouraged by paying fines, but outing them is an entirely different matter, Riskowski said.

“It's probably one of the larger deterrents you can have,” he said.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said that if the bill does come up for first-round debate before the end of the session, he will offer an amendment to increase fines for solicitation to $500. They currently are $250.

“These penalties need more teeth,” he said.

But as far as the mug shot gallery of shame, Coash said the committee decided it wasn't the state's responsibility. The names and photos of people convicted of crimes are public, so a private organization could build and maintain its own website if it wanted.

In 2004, Omaha neighborhood associations briefly put up billboards in the central part of the city, naming men convicted of soliciting prostitutes.

If the sex trafficking bill does not come up for debate this session, it would carry over to next year.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan

joe.duggan@owh.com    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

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