Advocates for sex-trafficking victims urged a Nebraska legislative committee on Thursday to support a bill that would create stiffer penalties for people who buy and sell sex in the state.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said her measure would send a strong message to people engaged in human trafficking.
"Nebraska will no longer tolerate your inhuman violations of our people, and your punishment will do everything we can to reflect your heinous actions," Pansing Brooks said.
About 900 people are sold for sex each month in Nebraska, according to a report by the Human Trafficking Initiative.
The bill increases felony classifications for several crimes connected to sex trafficking, which forces victims — usually women and children — into prostitution. Pandering, trafficking of an adult and soliciting a trafficked adult, all of which have no minimum penalty now, would be subject to a minimum of one year and maximum of 50 years in prison.
Trafficking of an adult with force would result in a minimum of three years in prison, and any sex trafficking of a minor, including solicitation, would come with a minimum prison sentence of five years. Trafficking of a minor with force or of a minor younger than 16 would result in a maximum life sentence and minimum 20 years.
The stiff penalties fit a growing demand that law enforcement agencies do all they can to stop trafficking in the state, said Glen Parks, coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. He commended the bill for holding johns liable for trafficking as well as prostitution.
"Human trafficking is a market," Parks said. "It's an illegal one, but it is subject to the forces of supply and demand. And I appreciate this bill's focus on demand."
Crysta Price, a researcher at Creighton University who worked on the report, said postings on a Craigslist-like website used to sell sex indicate nearly half of the sex workers had crossed state lines and about 50 percent were black, even though black people make up just 5 percent of Nebraska's populations. Ads also skewed toward youth, she said, with keywords such as "fresh meat" or "just hit 18."
The bill also would ensure trafficking victims could not be prosecuted as participants in trafficking ventures.
"We need to make sure people understand we are dealing with victims and criminals," Pansing Brooks said. "The criminals are the traffickers and the purchasers, and the victims are the ones that keep getting charged with prostitution."
The provision would allow victims to obtain help and get out of their situation, said Anne Boatright, coordinator of Omaha Methodist Hospital's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program. Doctors and nurses who see trafficking victims are required by law to report trafficking, but the majority of victims don't trust the law enforcement system, she said.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a member of the committee, asked what law enforcement could do to stay in touch with trafficking victims if they couldn't charge them. He doesn't want to punish victims but instead make sure trafficked children are able to get the help they need to get out, he said.
The Nebraska Criminals Defense Attorneys Association opposed the bill because of the increased penalties. Lobbyist Spike Eickholt said the higher penalties could hurt innocent defendants.
Pansing Brooks, who has supported sentencing reform for nonviolent offenses, said human trafficking merits stiff penalties.
"We're not talking about nonviolent drug crimes which are currently crowding our prisons," she said. "We're talking about one of the most heinous crimes, short of murder."
The bill continues a series of steps Nebraska officials have taken to combat human trafficking, a top priority for state Attorney General Doug Peterson. Two years ago, lawmakers approved allowing victims to sue traffickers, and last year, the Legislature approved a bill Pansing Brooks introduced that provides legal immunity to adult trafficking victims caught working as prostitutes.