HELENA — Human trafficking laws in Montana would be revised and expanded under proposed legislation to crack down on a problem lawmakers say is not only common in the Bakken oil-boom area but all over the state.
Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula introduced House Bill 89 in the Judiciary Committee on Monday at the request of state Attorney General Tim Fox. Dudik said the comprehensive measure aims to stop human trafficking, which she called “modern-day slavery.”
“I want to send a clear message that we protect everyone in Montana, especially children,” Dudik said. “Montana should not stand for people to be bought and sold.”
Katharina Werner with the Missoula Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, along with other supporters of the bill, told of teenagers or younger children from American Indian reservations and towns from Missoula to Kalispell to Great Falls who are coerced into leaving town with older men who make various promises.
In one case, a teenage girl ran away with a man who befriended her initially and, shortly after arriving in another state, became her pimp, Werner said. The man used threats of violence to get the girl to have sex with 500 people over six months for money he collected and kept, Werner said.
“Community members don’t know or don’t believe it’s a problem in our towns,” she said. “This is the greatest social justice problem of our times.”
Rick Freeland, who with his wife, Pat, has opened their west central Montana home to victims of human trafficking, said he came to Helena to tell lawmakers to pass the bill because he’s tired of seeing what’s going on.
“I don’t want to insult you, but until men absolutely believe that this kind of treatment of girls and women is wrong, this situation won’t change,” he said. “You want to be a hero — this is how you do it.”
House Bill 89 updates crimes and penalties for people exploiting children involved in the sex trade, adults who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone compelled into forced labor. The measure provides immunity for child victims, makes past sexual behavior of victims inadmissible in court and would allow victims to bring civil action against a trafficker. Victims could also move to have past criminal convictions vacated and get financial help.
It would also require those convicted of human-trafficking offenses to register similarly to sex offenders and undergo testing to determine the likelihood to reoffend. Traffickers could have their property seized as well. If convicted, the property could be sold, with the proceeds going to a crime victim compensation fund.
The measure would change Montana’s law for the better by allowing prosecutors more latitude in showing a victim was coerced into trafficking, said Ole Olson, a prosecutor with the Attorney General’s office. Criminals in these cases often use subtle psychological coercion tactics that aren’t addressed in current law, he said.
“This bill is a big step forward in helping prosecutors and law enforcement to hold traffickers accountable,” Olson said.
No one spoke in opposition of the bill. After testifying, many of the measure’s supporters attended an anti-human trafficking rally at noon behind the Capitol.
In 2013, lawmakers passed a bill that allowed the creation of posters with a toll-free national hotline to report human trafficking. Five thousand posters have been created and placed throughout the state in gas stations and rest areas, according to representatives with the attorney general’s office.
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