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Debate Over Maine Human Trafficking Bill Turns Partisan
11/01/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Prostitution arrests hardly make a ripple in Maine's uniform crime reports. But that doesn't mean that human trafficking is not a significant problem, according to a Cumberland County prosecutor. At least one state lawmaker doesn't think women convicted of prostitution as a result of human trafficking should be victimized twice. Her bill to vacate convictions in those cases was rejected by legislative leaders this week. But as A.J. Higgins reports, Democrats may now be willing to reconsider.

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Republicans were quick to pounce on Democratic leaders this week after the Legislative Council rejected Rep. Amy Volk's bill to vacate the prostitution convictions of those who are also victims of human trafficking. Legislative leaders had hoped the Scarborough Republican would informally explain why she thought the bill was needed, but that didn't happen. And Democrats, who hold six of the 10 seats on the council, rejected the bill.  And Democrats, who hold six of the 10 seats on the council, rejected the bill.

Democratic State Chair Ben Grant says Volk's decision to sponsor the bill makes some in his party suspicious. "This is a Republican party and a conservative legislator who is desperate to try to realign a gender gap that their party faces at the polls, and a representative who needs to kind of soften her hard edges," Grant says.

Grant says the Legislature already strengthened penalties for human traffickers in the last session of the Legislature. And he points out that the number of victims of human trafficking is difficult to quantify in Maine. According to the Maine Uniform Crime statistics, police reported 26 prostitution arrests in 2011 and 56 last year. And accoding to the FBI there were only 10 arrests for prostitution in Maine in 2010.

How many of these cases resulted in convictions, or were in any way connected to human trafficking, remains unclear. Grant says it would be good to know the extent of the problem - assuming there is one that needs to be addressed by Volk's legislation.

"This is clearly a sympathetic issue, it's an important issue," Grant says. "I just don't know if it's an issue at all here in Maine, and if it's not, that would leave me to believe that this is more about politics and elections than it is about human trafficking and prostitution."

Politics because Volk - who's wrapping up her second term in the Maine House - won her reelection bid by fewer than 20 votes in Scarborough's District 127, which has, over the years, swung both Republican and Democrat. Grant thinks Volk could benefit by embracing an issue that would appeal to progressive voters - and women voters in particular.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says Grant owes Volk an apology for speculating on her motives.

"I think it's pathetic that the chairman of the Democratic Party would try to suggest that someone is someone simply putting in a bill related to such a horrific crime as human trafficking as being politically driven by a Republican to simply help their campaign," Fredette says. "Rep. Volk is a Christian woman. She's worked hard on women's issues."

"I would say that I'm not under any illusion that I think that this is a huge problem for large numbers of people in the state of Maine," Volk says. Rep. Volk says her bill is needed even if one person is wronged by the criminal justice system, and that the bill would provide an avenue for a woman to rebuild her life - or a man for that matter.

Meg Elam, an assistant prosecutor in Cumberland County, says human trafficking in Maine is a bigger problem than people think.

"It can be an exchange of anything for money: 'If you agree to engage in a sex act with me I won't charge you your rent,' or 'I will offer you professional services in terms of car repair or legal bills,' or any of those sorts of things," Elam says. "So it's any time somebody is engaged in that exchange and taking money for that - they can be guilty of the crime of sex trafficking."

Rep. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says he wants to hear more about Volk's bill that - at the moment - exists as a title only, without any proposed language.

"I think her bill merits discussion," Dion says. "That's a first step in determining whether we should act as a matter of policy."

Volk does intend to appeal her bill on Nov. 21, and Democratic leaders say they will be interested in learning more about why the bill should be accepted.


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