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Bill on trafficking to provide more support for victims, prosecution of traffickers

BISMARCK -- A package of bills addressing human trafficking in North Dakota will be heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary committee.

The bills update the criminal code, provide funding for victim services and establish a unified commission to fight the complex crime officials said has a growing presence in North Dakota, especially its Oil Patch.

"We have two messages that we need to send: whether you are a trafficker in the sex trade or a customer, we're coming after you," North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Tuesday at a press conference with bill sponsors. "If you're a victim ... we will be there to help you find a better life."

Comparing western North Dakota's male-dominated population to Mardi Gras or Daytona Beach spring break, Sen. David Hogue, chairman of the judiciary committee, said pimps are "business opportunists" that see the Oil Patch as a place to commit their crime.

In the past year, state and federal prosecutors have charged seven people with offenses related to sex trafficking or felony facilitating or promoting prostitution.

Many are expected to testify at the Capitol Wednesday, including service providers that work with victims and representatives of FUSE, North Dakota's anti-trafficking coalition.

A bill aligning North Dakota's laws with the uniform act for human trafficking would decriminalize prostitution for minors, aka Safe Harbor.

Senate Bill 2107 also allows victims to seek expungements of prostitution and other non-violent crimes related to trafficking. Other elements include:

  •  Increasing penalties for some circumstances, such as recruiting a victim from a domestic violence shelter, runaway youth home or similar facility.
  •  Requiring traffickers to pay restitution to victims for expenses such as attorney fees and compensation for the income owed to the victim for labor or sexual activity.
  •  Rest stops and hospitals will be required to display public awareness signs advertising the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.
  •  Business entities that knowingly engage in human trafficking can be held liable.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 2199, would allocate $1 million for the Department of Human Services to dispense as grants to service providers working with victims.

A top priority for the funds is a shelter specifically for trafficking victims -- currently, many wind up in already overwhelmed domestic violence centers, which aren't trained or equipped to handle those cases.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, said funding would focus mostly on Williston, Stark County and Cass County.

"The nature of the whole human trafficking thing is it's transient and, you know, a victim in one area might not be better to keep them in that area might be be better to move them," he said.

Officials also hope the money will pay off with more court convictions of traffickers, as to testify against their trafficker -- often a linchpin to the case -- victims must feel safe, Dever said.

Another bill that could help in prosecutions comes from Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, who proposed increasing the statute of limitations for human trafficking from three to seven years.

"Often human traffickers are transient in nature. They move around; their victims are minors," he said of Senate Bill 2232. "This gives them (prosecutors) more time it build a case."

Convicted traffickers face far more severe prison time under another proposal.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, sponsored Senate Bill 2250, which makes a succinct but powerful change in the law to increase the maximum prison time for traffickers from five to 20 years -- jumping from a C to an A Felony -- when the trafficker uses force or threats to keep the victim in prostitution, or if the prostitute is the trafficker's spouse or ward. For other cases, the crime is a class C Felony.

"If we catch you making these victims or forcing these victims into having sex ... you will be charged with a felony," Armstrong said. "That'll survive in some form."

Senate Bill 2219 would establish a coordinated human trafficking commission for the state.

Setting up the commission right away ensures a streamlined response to victims, said sponsor Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck.

It would also be tasked with raising public awareness, so North Dakotans know how to detect trafficking and report it, and also so they know to look out for situations that leave the state's girls vulnerable to traffickers, Poolman said.

John school, forced abortion bills coming next week

Two of the most recently introduced trafficking bills will be heard next week because the slate for Wednesday got too full to do each bill justice, said Hogue, R-Minot.

One of the bills, Senate Bill 2332, would require judges to sentence convicted first-time solicitors of prostitution to an education session on the negative consequences of commercial sex.

The programming would serve a similar purpose as a so-called "John School" run by St. Paul, Minn.-based Breaking Free. The organization, which helps women trying to leave prostitution, leads the day-long class enlightening johns on the coercion and violence faced by women in "the life."

The law applies if such programming is "reasonably available." Currently it's not in North Dakota but sponsor Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said he's confident FUSE and other advocacy groups would find "a meaningful offender education program virtually on a case-by-case basis."

FUSE Coordinator Christina Sambor said the group is researching more accessible web-based opportunities for the education. Under the bill, the offender may be required to pay for the costs of the program.

Schneider said the education would enlighten the johns as to what commercial sex truly is: "This is not merely a transaction, this is something that is inherently exploitative."

A seventh bill, Senate Bill 2275, increases the maximum penalty for a trafficker by five years if during the crime he forced or coerced the victim to get an abortion.