Lawmakers may require offenders who use prostitutes to attend 'John School’
BISMARCK -- Legislators continued their look at new bills to combat sex trafficking in North Dakota on Tuesday, taking up proposals to require school for "johns" and increased penalties for pimps that force abortions.
Anti-trafficking groups are hoping for the adoption of a uniform trafficking law, increased penalties for sellers and buyers of commercial sex and significant resources for victims.
Hearings on the package of bills began last week by the Senate Judiciary committee.
Senate Bill 2332, from state Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, goes after the demand for commercial sex, which many say creates the market for pimps. The bill requires offenders to attend a "John School" and, if the individual reoffends again within 10 years, to register as a sex offender.
Given the enlightenment gained from the educational program, which would be administered on a case-by-case basis in-person or as a webinar, a person who reoffends truly is a sexual predator that should register, said Christina Sambor, the coordinator for the state's anti-sex trafficking coalition FUSE.
The purpose of the John School, proponents say, is to educate men on the negative consequences prostitution has on women -- that it's not the "Pretty Woman" fantasy, but instead women are often being coerced into it.
Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, had concern about writing into a law a requirement to attend a program that didn't yet exist in the state. But Schneider said he has been in talks with Sambor, who has been in contact with a foundation that does a web-based interactive course for about $300.
North Dakota's education program would be modeled after that of Breaking Free, a St. Paul, Minn.-based organization that supports women leaving prostitution. A survey of men who attended that program showed 61 percent had bought sex before the time they were caught and sentenced to the school. Other statistics have shown they rarely reoffend after the class.
Under the law, judges could make the offender pay for the program.
"If you have the funds to pay for commercial sex, you have the funds to pay for your own education program," Schneider said,
Minot police arrested 13 men in a prostitution sting last Friday in connection with a national enforcement operation targeting johns. Minot Police Lt. Jason Sundbakken said officers made the misdemeanor arrests in about 10 hours on Friday. The men who responded to the ads believed they were arranging to buy sex with women who turned out to be undercover officers.
Sundbakken said while he hadn't been involved in discussions at the legislative level about a proposed John School, he thinks such a program could be effective, similar to how drunk-driving defendants are referred to a victim witness panel.
"At least they would understand the kind of impact they're having on these women," he said.
Another bill, from FUSE and the office of North Dakota’s attorney general, adds "human trafficking or attempted human trafficking" in the definition of disorderly conduct for the purposes of that kind of restraining order. The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill at its meeting Tuesday.
The idea behind House Bill 1347 is to give parents a clear tool if they worry a pimp is trafficking or trying to traffick their child, Sambor testified.
She noted that under the proposed "Safe Harbor" law, which is also being considered by legislators and is already incorporated into federal law, anyone under 18 that's engaged in commercial sex is presumed to be a victim. The bill also updates the definition of "deprived child" in juvenile court to include victims of trafficking, in case their parents are their traffickers.
In yet another bill, the North Dakota Catholic Conference is pushing a bill that would tack five years onto the maximum prison time for pimps if, during the trafficking, they forced or coerced their victim to get an abortion.
Christopher Dodson, executive director of the conference, cited studies and articles on the prevalence of forced or coerced abortions in trafficking in his support of Senate Bill 2275.
Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said the reporting of such a crime might be "kind of a hearsay deal," and brought up concerns over the difficulty of proving it in court.
But Dodson said he knew of three federal cases where this act came to light in the process of a trafficker's prosecution.
The Senate committee unanimously passed a resolution to support a federal law that would make www.Backpage.com more liable when it houses sex ads featuring trafficking victims. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem spoke in support of Senate Concurrent Resolution 4017 and told the committee how state attorneys general for years have fought with the website, which houses a good share of the Internet's ads for prostitution that often actually feature victims of trafficking. Backpage representatives have maintained the site cooperates with law enforcement and that if it shuts down its escorts page, the ads would simply migrate to more underground websites.
North Dakota law enforcement agencies routinely post sting ads on Backpage when going after johns, Stenehjem said, "because we know that that provides a ready clientele and market for individuals who are interested in finding somebody online to engage in sexual trade."
Sambor told legislators how in a recent trafficking case, a 13-year-old girl in Moorhead, Minn., was advertised by her traffickers as a 21-year-old on the site.
The Senate committee took no action on the other bills.
Polaris releases hotline data
Polaris, a national anti-human trafficking organization, on Tuesday released data of calls during 2014 to the hotline it runs for suspected trafficking.
Polaris received reports of 16 possible cases of human trafficking in North Dakota last year, including 12 sex trafficking cases and three labor trafficking incidents. Since 2007, the hotline has received reports of 36 possible cases of human trafficking in the state.
Overall, 5,167 possible cases of human trafficking were reported to the hotline in 2014, according to Polaris. Most (71 percent) of the calls were to report potential sex trafficking, with labor trafficking making up 16 percent. The organization has reported on the top venues for sex trafficking are commercial-front brothels, Internet ad-based trafficking and motel- or hotel-based operations since 2007. Domestic work, traveling sales crews and the food service industry were the top industries where labor trafficking was reported.
Forum News Service and FNS reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.