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Alaska lawmakers to take up sex trafficking bill

Austin Baird

JUNEAU -- Alaska lawmakers are expected to spend most of the special session addressing concerns about the state's tax on oil industry and discussing the elusive in-state gas pipeline, but Gov. Sean Parnell also is directing attention to a third issue: human trafficking.

Parnell, who introduced HB359 in February, said in a press release Tuesday that the Legislature needs to realize "time is absolutely of the essence," and he urged the Senate to pass the bill, which cleared the House unanimously earlier this month.

"It never hurts to have more information," Parnell said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I don't want to study an issue just to study it. I want to take action."

The bill proposes harsher penalties against people convicted of sex trafficking, a removal of the label of "prostitute" from victims, and a change of procedural rules to expedite justice and make the process easier on victims. Under the proposal, a person would be guilty of sex trafficking for three actions: forcing anyone to engage in prostitution, inducing a person under 20 years old into prostitution or inducing someone under their legal custody into prostitution.

Sgt. Kathy Lacey, the detective in charge of the Anchorage Police Department Vice Unit, said that sex trafficking exists wherever there is prostitution, and that it's "just a matter of unraveling it." "Reality is ugly, exploitative and tough to handle," she said. "We as a society too often talk about (prostitution) as the world's oldest profession with a laugh and a smile ... reality is a 14-year-old girl or boy from an abusive background. We have to acknowledge there are still broad problems in Anchorage and around the state."

A story is often repeated about Alaska Native girls who have ended up in Anchorage working as prostitutes returning to their villages to recruit young girls from turbulent homes; the older girls from Anchorage will offer a way to get to the city and a place to stay, but when the young girls arrive, they are forced to have sex for money. Lacey said that narrative has some grounding in fact, but few concrete examples have been presented.

Statistics about prevalence of sex trafficking in Alaska are also vague. Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, introduced a bill that would have created a task force to measure the problem and to determine whether sufficient victims' services exist, but the plan never made it out of the Senate.

Jolene Goeden, an FBI special agent in Anchorage who investigates sex crimes, said all sex crimes are notoriously underreported. Shame felt by many victims, fear of repercussions for reporting crimes and victims often having poor support structures are a few of the factors that lead to sex trafficking going unreported.

Matters are complicated further when the victim is an immigrant, said Robin Bronen, which she said is often the case in Anchorage.

"Many (immigrants) feel it's much easier to keep that crime hidden than to deal with police," said Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project. "If (a victim's handler) tells a girl they'll be deported for going to the police, that they'll be the ones in trouble, how can they know not to believe it?"

While legislators are expected to make short work passing the governor's bill, concerns have been raised about the constitutionality of a section that would allow witnesses to provide testimony by video during competency hearings.

Parnell said his intent is to expedite the justice process and make trials less taxing on victims.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said that portion of the bill violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee that anyone accused of a crime has a right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

During the waning hours of the regular session, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said he shared concerns about the bill's implications on the confrontation clause of the Constitution. At the time, he said he planned to vote in favor and let courts address the concerns, but on Tuesday he said he plans to voice opposition to the section on the Senate floor when the bill is considered.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor believes Alaska courts would allow the procedure, because the Department of Law believes competency hearings are distinct from trials.

A Department of Law report said there are three key differences: First, a judge decides whether a person competent to stand trial, not a jury. Second, a defendant raising the issue of competency must prove their claim. Last, the burden of proof a defendant must present to prove incompetency is by a "preponderance of evidence" and not "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Whatever comes out of the debate over the bill, Goeden said attention to the issue is a good thing.

"Community awareness is really a key," she said. "When people see something that's puzzling to them, call it in."

The bill was discussed during a Senate floor session on Wednesday, the first day of the special session, but too few members were present for a vote.


By AUSTIN BAIRD
Associated Press