Lawmakers made a last-minute tweak to a human trafficking bill Monday after concerns were raised that it would give immunity from prosecution to anyone younger than 18 arrested for prostitution.
The bill (LB255) by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill would, among other things, add human trafficking of a minor to the definition of child abuse and toughen penalties for solicitation, pandering, debauching a minor and running a house of prostitution. It also would require law enforcement to collect and maintain information about human trafficking perpetrators and victims.
But one section of the bill says if "a person suspected of or charged with a violation of Subsection One of this section is a person under eighteen years of age, such person shall be immune from prosecution for a prostitution."
That section reads: "any person who performs, offers, or agrees to perform any act of sexual contact or sexual penetration … with any person not his or her spouse, in exchange for money or other thing of value, commits prostitution."
McGill said experts say "anyone who is a minor who is performing sex acts for money is not doing it by choice. It isn't something that should be prosecuted."
The bill focuses on minors, who often are forced into prostitution. It also would make solicitation of a minor a felony.
"Almost all the women who do go into -- what people have traditionally seen as prostitution -- were abused at some point earlier in their lives," McGill said. "We should be identifying those women and helping them and not saying, 'Hey, we're going to prosecute you.'"
But she admitted her bill would grant immunity to minors who decide independently to engage in prostitution.
"That is incredibly rare. I'm not hearing of any cases like that," McGill said. "The specter is there, but I am not aware of any cases like that."
To allay concerns over granting immunity from prosecution, she offered an amendment that was adopted that would place minors arrested for prostitution under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court, which could order treatment.
An earlier study by a Nebraska human trafficking task force said Interstate 80 is a major conduit for the drug and sex trades.
Shared Hope International, which opposes human trafficking, says the average age a child is first exploited through prostitution is 13. The group estimates that at least 100,000 American children are being exploited through pornography or prostitution every year.
The bill faces one more round of consideration.