Lewiston prosecutor lobbies to decriminalize prostitution of sex trafficking victims

The Legislative Assembly’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony last week about a measure that would revise prostitution laws to focus police and prosecutors on commercial sex buyers. Screenshot of the video

LEWISTON – District Attorney Andrew Robinson is calling on state lawmakers to decriminalize prostitution and allow its victims to seek to seal previous convictions.

The bill he supports “Would recognize that people who are caught in the nightmarish circumstances of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are victims” rather than criminals, Robinson told lawmakers.

Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson Steve Collins / Journal of the Sun

This is something Lewiston’s Lucia Lombardi knows all too well.

Lombardi told lawmakers at a public hearing on a related bill this month that when she was younger, “I was involved in prostitution to access food, a place to sleep and Drugs.”

“I was there only because of the extreme poverty,” she said. “I was in prostitution to survive.”

At the time, Lombardi said, “I was on autopilot, barely surviving, swapping sex to pay for basic necessities.”

According to the measure supported by Robinson, “the purchase of sexual services would remain illegal in Maine” and the penalties would increase. But selling sex would no longer lead to arrests under the proposal.

“The people who create the victims are the people who pay for the sex and they are the ones who should be brought before the criminal justice system,” said Robinson, the county prosecutor for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.

Robinson said prostitution arrests are now made in part “to access services” that can help those who sell sex find a better life.

“A better model to adopt,” he said, “would be to provide services to individuals to prevent their involvement in the criminal justice system in the first place.”

The measure’s main sponsor, Democratic State Representative Lois Galgay Reckitt of South Portland, said the bill would keep prostitution “on the books” while creating defenses for the seller and more penalties for the buyer with the crime redefined as “commercial sexual exploitation”.

“Prostitution is therefore being redefined as a buyer problem and a demand problem,” Reckitt said. “The prostitute is a victim if a customer tries to buy it.”

A bill worried about opponents could be counterproductive

State Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt of South Portland, the main sponsor of LD 1592, which would decriminalize prostitution for its victims. Screenshot of the video

Not everyone thinks the proposed change is a good idea.

Dee Clarke, executive director of Survivor Speak USA, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that if he succeeds, “Maine will become a place for traffickers.”

“The repeal of prostitution will do more harm than it helps,” Clarke said. “Young women are easily swayed by false promises of love and a better life. Women living in relationships based on coercive controls will be reminded that they do not have to fear being arrested for prostitution. “

Amanda Comeau of Portland said she saw firsthand “how traffickers, pimps work and the way they see women, children and transgender people.”

“Decriminalizing prostitution will invite traffickers from other states to come to Maine, bringing other victims with them and being able to trap new victims from here,” Comeau said.

“I can hear the traffic is now as they whisper, ‘Hey you’re over 18 that’s okay hun you’re good you won’t get in trouble because it’s legal to Androscoggin, ”Comeau said. “Decriminalizing prostitution is more harmful than useful.”

Tierra Ross of Portland, once a victim of prostitution, said she worried because “pimps are so manipulative and they know how to blend in and stay away.”

“For over a decade my pimps constantly sent me to different states to make money, and every morning I had a daily quota to send back to them,” via cards not found, Ross said.

“I’m worried that if decriminalization of prostitution becomes legal, more victimization will occur in our communities,” said Ross, especially because Maine is already under-resourced and the ones that do exist “aren’t spillover to to the last girl, black, brunette, native. , young girls, women and trans who are the most statistically victimized and exploited people, globally, nationally and even here in this very white state of Maine.

“Where are we going to get more resources from? Decriminalization comes from a very privileged place and it leaves out the last girl who only victimizes her even more, ”said Ross.


But a majority of those who testified supported the bill promoted by Reckitt, which is co-sponsored, among others, by State Representative Heidi Brooks, a Democrat from Lewiston.

Michael Kebede, American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Policy Advisor Screenshot of the video

Michael Kebede, political adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the civil rights group has been pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, arguing that the laws “have traditionally been one of the most common forms. more direct discrimination against women ”.

The lawyer said the law violates individual privacy by criminalizing “the private sexual behavior of consenting adults.”

Kebede said prostitution laws are also “a prime example of how our criminal justice system punishes victims for their victimization.”

Elizabeth Ward Sax of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault said that “repealing the crime of engaging in prostitution would increase the safety of those engaged in commercial sexual activity by protecting them from criminal penalties.”

World Without Exploitation police director Rebecca Zipkin said the bill recognizes prostitution as “a form of violence and exploitation” that survivors need help with, not criminal records.

“The legislation also recognizes the grave harm perpetrated by those who exploit women, children and other marginalized groups in the sex trade by holding these exploiters accountable,” Zipkin said.

“We can make progress in eliminating cases of trauma and prejudice against women and others in the sex trade and reducing demand from buyers and exploiters” by implementing the measure, which is modeled on a approach that works in countries like Norway, France, Canada, Iceland, Sweden and Israel, Zipkin said.

She said this protects victims from “stigma while continuing to hold buyers and exploiters accountable who prey on vulnerable people and profit from their trauma.”


Nate Walsh, Assistant District Attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin Counties Screenshot of the video

Nate Walsh, who worked for five years as Robinson’s human trafficking prosecutor, told the committee that he had had many opportunities “to meet many people who have experienced prostitution.”

“From the start,” he said, “I used the criminal justice system to divert these people to services. A criminal sanction would provide the motivation to take the necessary steps to recover and live a restored life, I thought. I quickly learned that this approach was very flawed.

“I have come to see people who have experienced prostitution as victims of exploitation,” said Walsh.

The vast majority are women, he said, “sold their consent to have sex because it was what they left”.

“I heard stories of abuse in their childhood, of domestic violence in adulthood, and of how addiction consumes someone’s life,” Walsh said.

“When I listened to these women, I heard about trauma and hopelessness and the people who took advantage of it,” he said, and “came to see prostitution as the commercial exploitation of some. of the most vulnerable members of our communities.

“I realized that the commercial sex market is driven by demand. Buying sex is the cause of the problem, not the people who have been caught up in life, ”he said.

“Our response to helping these people involved in prostitution has been to bring them into the criminal justice system to give them access to services,” Walsh said. “The police intervene, often by means of an arrest, in order to give them access to services.”

“While well-intentioned, it does come with some prejudice,” he said. Accusing someone of engaging in prostitution “carries a stigma that stands in the way of a restored life, even if the person engages in services. I had to ask myself ‘is this justice?’ “

“The sex buyers are the ones in the equation who deserve criminal punishment,” Walsh said.

But it shouldn’t end there, he added.

“We need to work to educate our communities about the harms caused by prostitution. We should be talking about the rights of men. We should stop using the criminal justice system as a gatekeeper for access to the services that should be provided to prevent involvement in the criminal justice system, ”he said.

Robinson said the response to “human trafficking and sexual exploitation” is to target “those who pay for sex” and work with the state “to support the victims”.

One element of the measure that lawmakers are considering, Walsh said, would “establish a pilot program” in Androscoggin County to “see the state lead a coordinated response between agencies and organizations providing direct services to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking ”without the need to bring victims into the criminal justice system.

The committee has not yet set a working session on the bill.

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