Both houses of the Alaska Legislature moved to crack down on sex trafficking in Alaska Thursday, unanimously passing a new law banning it as the first act of the special session. The law was requested by Gov. Sean Parnell.
The bill was a late entry into the legislative debate, as shown by its number, House Bill 359 out of 369 bills introduced.
It aims to protect women and children, both boys and girls, from being trafficked into prostitution.
“I just became aware in the last year, frankly in the last six months, of the depth and extent of this depravity in our state,” Parnell said.
After hearing testimony from the Anchorage Police Department, Covenant House, Mary Magdalene Home, and the state Violent Crimes Compensation Board and others, legislators were competing to see who could be tougher on sex traffickers, the new term for those who force someone into prostitution.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, criticized the lawyers who represent accused sex traffickers in court.
“We should be boycotting those attorneys,” he said.
He also praised vigilante justice. “Take the law into your own hands,” he said. “Clint Eastwood’s still the man.”
Finding out from his staff that the state itself is the largest provider of defense attorneys for indigent defendants, Thomas suggested ending the constitutional right to an attorney.
“I would advise against it,” cautioned Annie Carpenter, the Department of Law’s legislative liaison.
“Maybe we’ll just cut their budget,” Thomas said.
“I appreciate your zeal,” said Rep. Bill Stoltze R-Chugiak, Thomas’ co-chair on the House Finance Committee.
The committee didn’t do that, but instead increased the age at which someone is considered a child if they are coerced into prostitution. The problem is especially severe in villages, where young Native woman are lured into prostitution by predators, legislators heard.
Parnell said he’d heard from the FBI and Anchorage police “how girls are sent out from Anchorage into the villages to recruit,” he said.
The targets are “offered cosmetics, shelter, hair, makeup, and it’s a chance out of a really bad situation in their own home, they’re going to take it and then wind up in Anchorage and they wind up being slaves,” he said.
Now, thanks to an amendment to Parnell’s bill offered by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, those recruiters can be hit with harsh sentences if those they recruit are under 20 years of age.
“Sex traffickers who prey on 19-year-olds are just as bad as those who prey on 18-year-olds,” he said.
They can now face sentences of up to 99 years in prison. The main goal is to go after the traffickers, not the individual johns, he said.
In the Senate, Parnell’s anti-trafficking bill was amended to not only bar transporting girls to Alaska, but within the state as well.
Amendment sponsor Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said it shouldn’t matter whether girls were transported to the state or within the state.
“These victims are drugged and beaten in order to force them to continue to prostitute themselves for the monetary gain of the offenders,” he said.
The bill change the name of the crime “promoting prostitution” to “sex trafficking,” said Carpeneti, to conform to new terminology now in use.
“Law enforcement almost uniformly describes this conduct as ‘sex trafficking’” she said.
The change is also considered more respectful to victims of crimes to be considered victims of sex trafficking rather than participants in prostitution,” she said.
Another element to Parnell’s bill allows the use of two-way videoconferencing for some witnesses when it is difficult to appear in person.
The Legislature was warned that might be a violation of suspects’ constitutional right to confront the witnesses against them.
Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, warned that aspect of the bill was “not clearly unconstitutional, but may be” unconstitutional.
That provision is sure to be challenged in court, warned Doug Gardner, Director of Legislative Legal Services and a former Juneau District Attorney.
“It’s almost certain defendants will litigate this issue, with the outcome an open question,” he said.
The bill passed unanimously in both houses of the Legislature Thursday, an action praised by Parnell, who is expected to sign it.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org