JUNEAU-- Alaska lawmakers have unanimously passed a bill stiffening penalties for sex trafficking, removing the label of "prostitute" from victims and changing court procedures as an effort to expedite justice and make the process easier on victims.
Gov. Sean Parnell introduced HB359 in February. The bill passed the House during the regular legislative session, but time ran out before the session ended. The governor included the bill as part of the call for the special session, which started Wednesday. The Senate on Thursday made short work of passing the bill and sending it on to Parnell.
If he signs the measure into law, a person will 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. The crime will be classified as a "serious felony offense."
Parnell said during an earlier interview with The Associated Press that he became aware of the issue while in Italy last November. He said he visited a shelter run by Sister Eugenia Bonetti, a Consolata Missionary who has helped create more than a hundred anti-trafficking shelters around Italy. Parnell and his wife, Sandy, began exploring the extent of the problem in Alaska and ultimately formed the bill as a response.
"In many cases we have been lax as a state in punishing those who take advantage of our most vulnerable," Parnell said. "This bill changes that."
The only concern raised before the Senate passed the bill was on a section more broadly allowing witnesses to testify by video rather than in person. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said in a floor speech that courts are likely to question whether a Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses is violated.
French mentioned a split-decision by the Supreme Court establishing that allowing video testimony does not necessarily violate the confrontation clause in the Constitution. French read from Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion on the 1990 case, Maryland v. Craig: "Seldom has this Court failed so conspicuously to sustain a categorical guarantee of the Constitution against the tide of prevailing current opinion," Scalia wrote.
With that concern expressed, French voted in favor of the bill. He said, after the session, that there is a lot of good in the bill, and that the plan to allow video testimony in more circumstances is narrow enough not to cause great concern.
By AUSTIN BAIRD
Alaska Dispatch Publishing