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Legal approach to sex trafficking finicky, but getting better

In World
May 20, 2024

May 19—LEWISTON — Whether urban or rural, human trafficking continues to plague police, prosecutors and advocates with as many as 27.6 million victims by 2021 estimates.

While forced labor comes with many complexities, the issue of sex trafficking is still somewhat ambiguous in the public eye.

Jaime Ricker and Meg Hatch of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services explained in an email exchange that many of the misconceptions of sex trafficking are due to Hollywood and media sensationalism or misrepresentation of the ill effects on society. SAPARS is one of many organizations in Maine that helps victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

The most common misconception, Ricker and Hatch wrote, is that people who experience trafficking or exploitation are complicit in their participation. People often fall into exploitation or trafficking trying to meet their needs, they said.

“People also need to understand … trafficking or exploitation often results in complex trauma,” they wrote. “It may take a survivor many times to get out of a situation and, once they do, we need to have the appropriate resources to provide the services that they need.”

The U.S. Department of State estimated in a 2023 report that about 27.6 million people globally were involved in forced labor in 2021 alone. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 175 signals— hotline, email, text or web chat— for human trafficking from Maine in the same year. Some 47 of these signals came directly from Maine victims or survivors.

The hotline identified 31 of these signals, 22 of which were confirmed sex trafficking. Six cases involved children or minors and 23 involved women or girls. Not every case involves just one person— of Maine’s 31 cases, 83 victims were involved. Basic calculations show the number of human trafficking victims in 2021 could have been as high as 469 and, over the past five years, nearly 1,400.

Aside from the limited data the hotline and other organizations can provide, trafficking is difficult to quantify, said Nathan Walsh, Maine District 3 assistant district attorney. Walsh said Maine’s problem with sex trafficking is only as bad as its problem with drugs.

While trafficking victimhood among youth and other at-risk people exists, most victims suffer from substance use disorder and are coerced into providing paid sex with the promise of drugs or drug money, he said. Many victims don’t see themselves as victims because, to them, selling their bodies is a means to the next high, much like it is for living necessities as Ricker and Hatch said. Convincing a victim they can testify against their trafficker becomes even harder when you have to first show them that they are a victim, he said.

Maine is now on the cutting edge in the U.S. for how it deals with trafficking prosecution, Walsh said. In 2023, the Maine Legislature passed L.D. 1435 “An Act to Reduce Commercial Sexual Exploitation” which was sponsored and championed by the late Rep. Lois Galgay-Reckitt of South Portland.

The new law adopts the “equality model” or “Nordic model” which decriminalizes sex-selling while keeping sex-buying criminal. The change empowers trafficking victims to work with police and prosecutors without damaging their record and risking jail time.

The model, now spotlighting Maine for its response to sex trafficking, helps push law enforcement and prosecutors to engage in victim-centered and trauma-informed investigations. The 1980s era of vice squads, at least outside of large cities, is over.

The only detail that muddies the waters with trafficking victims who also suffer from substance use disorder is that police are still allowed to investigate violations of Maine’s drug laws, Walsh said.

“Specifically, some (victims) have spoken to me about drug trafficking convictions that were the result of being trafficked, such as a sex trafficker who also traffics drugs making their victim take a conviction,” Walsh said. “However, police and prosecutors always have discretion and can factor in an individual’s trafficking history when deciding what to do with a case.”

In addition to rethinking the former vice beat, Walsh said police and prosecutors, especially in the Lewiston area, have been performing “john stings” by putting out online advertisements for paid sex. The responses are shocking as is the general demand for paid sex in the local communities, he said.

“When the johns call in, they never say, ‘are you being trafficked’ or ‘are you underage.’ They’re saying, ‘are you a cop,'” Walsh said. “The concern isn’t there for the person on the other end … By doing these john stings, we’ve made it so that would-be sex-buyers are a little bit more hesitant.”

The interactions have also informed an accountability model program the courts are now using which educates first-time sex buyers on what sex trafficking is and how it affects people and the community. Walsh said the 10-week diversion program was developed in 2012 in Seattle by national nonprofit World Without Exploitation. Walsh attended a training event in 2019 where he connected with a survivor who recommended connecting with the nonprofit.

Now, Maine’s version is being tailored by Westbrook nonprofit Just Love Worldwide. Much like its Seattle counterpart, it addresses the root cause of why people feel it’s OK to buy sex or what brought them to the point of paying for sex, Walsh said. It also gives first-time johns the opportunity to avoid a conviction if they successfully navigate the program.

And it’s working, Walsh said, “to the point where guys who have done the program have actually, unprompted, approached the DA and said, ‘this is a good program that people need to know about.'”

Walsh said he and many among the legal system, in law enforcement and in advocacy hope the program has a significant long-term impact on the market for exploitation and sex trafficking.

Also passing the Legislature in 2023 was L.D. 1436 “An Act to Provide 10 Remedies for Survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation,” also sponsored by Galgay-Reckitt. The bill gives victims recourse to seal convictions of engaging in prostitution which often wreak havoc for a survivor’s social and professional life.

It doesn’t expunge records, but guarantees background checks and criminal history checks don’t flag a person’s conviction. Walsh said the sealing of the conviction would need to be initiated by the convicted person as is the case with most sealed convictions. This means the convicted person would need to find an attorney or legal aid service to help them review eligibility and file a petition.

“There has been some discussion with who could assist these people, but (we) don’t have a solid answer,” Walsh said.

“We are doing a better job of including survivors’ voices and collaborating with each other, and there is still more we can do,” Ricker and Hatch wrote. “As we do this work, it is so clear that not one agency or person can provide a survivor with the range of support and resources they may need.”

As for what we can all do better to attack the problem?

“I believe that people should absolutely always report suspected trafficking to law enforcement,” Walsh said.

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