LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Sex trafficking victims with a prostitution conviction could clear their criminal record under a bill Nebraska lawmakers will consider this year, the latest step in a larger effort to protect people who were coerced into prostitution.
The bill would allow human trafficking survivors to ask a judge to set aside their conviction and seal their criminal record for offenses they committed while under a trafficker’s influence.
The measure is part of a push to focus less on punishing trafficking survivors and more on targeting traffickers and sex purchasers, said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who sponsored the legislation.
Lawmakers have taken a more aggressive approach to human trafficking in the last five years, passing laws to increase penalties for traffickers and buyers, allow former victims to sue their traffickers and provide legal immunity to trafficking victims who are caught working as prostitutes.
Pansing Brooks said traffickers exert tremendous control over their victims, often taking their money and identification.
The victims, usually women and girls, are frequently kept in prostitution through threats, violence and drug addiction. They’re often forced to commit other crimes as well, such as burglary or selling drugs, Pansing Brooks said.
“It’s two people with power - the trafficker and the purchaser - exerting influence over some very vulnerable people,” she said. Victims “are under total control of someone who forces them to commit these bad acts.”
Under the bill, survivors would have to prove they were trafficked using phone records, online ads, sworn testimony or other evidence to prevent people from abusing the system.
Trafficking survivors with a criminal conviction tend to struggle to find housing and a job that gives them economic security, said Meghan Malik, who works on human trafficking issues through the nonprofit Women’s Fund of Omaha. Without that support, she said, trafficking victims frequently fall back into prostitution.
“Often times, they feel the deck is stacked against them,” she said. “It becomes a cyclical pattern. These kinds of convictions can prevent a trafficking victim from creating a new life.”
Malik said 34 other states already have laws to clear a trafficking victim’s record.
Traffickers generally operate along Interstate 80 and in larger cities, although Malik said their reach extends statewide. In a report last year, the Women’s Fund identified major hotspots in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff, and surrounding communities.
Much of the activity in Grand Island takes place around its numerous truck stops, said Sen. Dan Quick, whose district includes the city. Quick designated the record-clearing legislation as his “priority bill” for the year, increasing the odds that lawmakers debate it before their session ends.
“We need to help them as much as we can, help them turn their lives around,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen to anyone’s children.”
Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said the Legislature’s recent focus on trafficking victims could encourage some to work with law enforcement and seek treatment by easing their fears of prosecution. The vast majority suffer from drug and alcohol problems, he said.
Dunning said his agency and others have been working with motels to spot signs of human trafficking, and conduct regular sting operations to catch buyers.
Karen Bowling, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said her group started advocating for such laws after she met a woman 10 years ago who had been cited on prostitution and drug charges. Bowling said the woman had been under the influence of a trafficker and was addicted to drugs, and resorted to prostitution later in life to survive.
“There’s absolutely the potential that this could have helped,” Bowling said. “You’re talking about a woman who got pulled into it out of desperation. Once she got ticketed, it really did follow her.”
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