LEWISTON — District Attorney Andrew Robinson is calling on state lawmakers to decriminalize prostitution and allow its victims to seek to have past convictions sealed.
The bill he supports “would acknowledge that people who are caught up in the nightmare circumstances of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are victims” rather than criminals, Robinson told legislators.
It’s something that Lucia Lombardi of Lewiston knows too well.
Lombardi told legislators in a public hearing for a related bill this month that when she was younger “I was involved in prostitution to access food, a place to sleep and drugs.”
“I was only there due to extreme poverty,” she said. “I was into prostitution to survive.”
At the time, Lombardi said, “I was on autopilot, barely surviving, exchanging sex to pay for basic needs.”
Under the measure backed by Robinson, “buying sex would remain illegal in Maine” and penalties for it would increase. But selling sex would no longer lead to arrests under the proposal.
“The people who create the victims are the ones paying for sex and they are the ones who should be subjected to the criminal justice system,” said Robinson, the prosecutor for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.
Robinson said arrests for prostitution now are done in part “to gain access to services” that can help those selling sex to find a better life.
“A better model to embrace,” he said, “would be to provide services to individuals to prevent their involvement in the criminal justice system in the first place.”
The measure’s lead sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt of South Portland, said the bill would keep prostitution “on the books” while creating defenses for the seller and more penalties for the buyer with the crime redefined as “commercial sexual exploitation.”
“Prostitution therefore is redefined as a buyer problem and a demand issue,” Reckitt said. “The prostituted person is a victim if a patron attempted to buy her/him.”
OPPONENTS WORRY BILL COULD BE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
Not everybody thinks the proposed change is a good idea.
Dee Clarke, executive director of Survivor Speak USA, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that if it passes, “Maine will become a spot for traffickers.”
“Repealing engaging in prostitution will harm more than it will help,” Clarke said. “Young girls are easily swayed by false promises of love and a better life. Women in relationships that are grounded in coercive controls will be reminded that they don’t have to worry about being arrested for prostitution.”
Amanda Comeau of Portland said she has seen firsthand “how traffickers, pimps work and the way that they see women, children, and transgender” people.
“Decriminalizing engaging in prostitution will invite traffickers from other states to come to Maine, bringing other victims with them as well as he can entrap new victims from here,” Comeau said.
“I can hear the traffic is now as they whisper, ‘Hey you’re over 18, it’s OK, hun, you’re good, you won’t get in trouble because it’s legal in Androscoggin,’” Comeau said. “Decriminalizing engaging in prostitution is more harmful than helpful.”
Tierra Ross of Portland, once a victim of prostitution, said she worries because “pimps are so manipulative and they know how to blend in and stay out of the way.”
“For over a decade, my pimps usually send me away to different states all the time to make money, and every morning, I had a daily quota to send back to them” via untraceable cards, Ross said.
“I am afraid if decriminalization in engaging in prostitution becomes legal more victimization will happen in our communities,” Ross said, especially because Maine lacks resources already and those that do exist “do not trickle down to the last girl, black, brown, indigenous, young girls, women and trans, who are the most victimized and exploited people statistically, globally, nationally and even here in this very white state of Maine.”
“Where will we get more resources from? Decriminalization comes from a very privileged place and it leaves out the last girl only victimizing her even more,” Ross said.
MANY TESTIFY IN FAVOR OF BILL
But a majority of those testifying supported the bill that Reckitt promoted, which is cosponsored by, among others, state Rep. Heidi Brooks, a Lewiston Democrat.
Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the civil rights group has pressed for decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, arguing that the laws “have traditionally represented one of the most direct forms of discrimination against women.”
The lawyer said the law violates individual privacy by criminalizing “private sexual conduct of consenting adults.”
Kebede said prostitution laws are also “a prime example of the way our criminal legal system punishes victims for their victimization.”
Elizabeth Ward Sax of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault said “repealing the crime of Engaging in Prostitution would increase the safety of individuals engaged in commercial sex by protecting them from being criminally punished.”
Rebecca Zipkin, the police director for World Without Exploitation, said the bill recognizes that prostitution is “a form of violence and exploitation” whose survivors need help, not criminal records.
“The legislation also recognizes the grave harms perpetrated by those who exploit women, children, and other marginalized groups in the sex trade by holding those exploiters accountable,” Zipkin said.
“We can make strides to eliminate the instances of trauma and harm against women and others in the commercial sex trade and decrease demand from buyers and exploiters” by implementing the measure, which is modeled on an approach that is working in countries such as Norway, France, Canada, Iceland, Sweden and Israel, Zipkin said.
She said it protects victims from being “stigmatized while continuing to hold accountable buyers and exploiters who prey on vulnerable individuals and profit from their trauma.”
ANDROSCOGGIN’S HUMAN TRAFFICKING PROSECUTOR SEEKS REFORM
Nate Walsh, who has worked for five years as Robinson’s human trafficking prosecutor, told the committee he’s had many opportunities “to meet with many people who have experienced prostitution.”
“Early on,” he said, “I used the criminal justice system as a way to divert these people into services. A criminal penalty would provide the motivation to take the necessary steps to recovery and living a restored life, I thought. I soon learned this approach was significantly flawed.”
“I have come to see people who have experienced prostitution as victims of exploitation,” Walsh said.
The vast majority are women, he said, “sold their consent to have sex because that was what they had left.”
“I have heard stories about abuse in their childhood, domestic abuse as adults, and how addiction consumes someone’s life,” Walsh said.
“When I listened to these women, I heard about trauma, desperation and people taking advantage of them,” he said, and “came to see prostitution as the commercial exploitation of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.”
“I realized that the market for commercial sex is fueled by demand. Buying sex is the cause of the problem, and not the people who have been caught up in the life,” he said.
“Our response to helping these people involved in prostitution was to bring them into the criminal justice system to provide access to services,” Walsh said. “Police intervene, often through an arrest, with the goal of getting them access to services.”
“Although well-intentioned, it comes with some harm,” he said. Charging someone with engaging in prostitution “carries with it a stigma that acts as a barrier to leading a restored life even if the person engages in services. I had to ask myself ‘is this justice?’”
“Sex buyers are the ones in the equation who are deserving of a criminal penalty,” Walsh said.
But it shouldn’t end there, he added.
“We should work to educate our communities about the harm that is being done through prostitution. We should talk about male entitlement. We should stop using the criminal justice system as the gatekeeper for access to services that should be provided to prevent involvement in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Robinson said the answer to “human trafficking and sexual exploitation” is to target “the ones paying for sex” and working with the state “to support victims.”
One piece of the measure lawmakers are considering, Walsh said, “would establish a pilot program” in Androscoggin County to “see the state lead a coordinated response among the agencies and organizations providing direct services to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking” without the need to bring victims into the criminal justice system.
The committee has not yet set a work session for the bill.