Twelve years ago, John Bohlinger, then a state senator from Billings, told his legislative colleagues a shocking story of young Montana women forced into prostitution in our state where low-penalty laws made prosecution of pimps almost impossible.
After federal authorities prosecuted a prostitution ring in Billings, local police, and the county attorney worked with Bohlinger on a bill that would make promotion of prostitution a felony in this state. At a hearing, an FBI agent testified that the pimp conspiracy involved at least 80 girls from Billings forced into a national prostitution circuit. Promotion of prostitution now is a felony.
But there’s still a problem, and the lure of money in the Bakken oil patch brings new challenges for law enforcement and protection of vulnerable, young Montanans.
“Human trafficking is happening in Montana,” Rep. Sarah Laszloffy, R-Laurel, and Jenifer Gursky, D-Missoula, wrote in a guest opinion in The Gazette shortly after the 2013 Legislature convened. “In March 2011, two men involved in a prostitution ring in Missoula plead guilty to “aggravated” promotion of prostitution of three girls under the age of 18. Last summer, two adults in Kalispell were arrested for prostituting a 13-year-old girl for drug money. And with increased demand in the Bakken, we are already getting reports of underage prostitution.”
House Bill 478, sponsored by Laszloffy, is set for hearing in Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after being approved by the House 86-11. Laszloffy’s bill would increase penalties for promoting prostitution of minors and would allow offenders’ property to be seized. According to the fiscal note for HB478, three people have been prosecuted for felony promotion of prostitution of someone under age 18 in the past 12 years.
House Bill 488, sponsored by Gursky, would require that a national human trafficking hotline number be posted at highway rest areas in Montana and distributed to other places where a victim could see the number. The bill is scheduled for second reading in the Senate on Tuesday, after being unanimously endorsed by the Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee and passing the House 92-5. The Department of Transportation would be responsible for providing the posters, which a fiscal note says would have “nominal cost.”
Senate Bill 259, sponsored by Sen. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, passed both House and Senate unanimously and is heading for the governor’s desk. Arntzen’s bill allows Montana courts to vacate a prostitution conviction if the convicted person asks the court and the court finds that “the person’s participation in the offense was a result of having been a victim of trafficking for commercial sexual activity.” Arntzen’s bill would help keep victims of human trafficking from being victimized by an undeserved criminal record for the rest of their lives.
Together with Gursky’s bill that aims to publicize help for trafficking victims and Laszloffy’s bill to toughen laws against promoting prostitution of people under age 18, this trio would give Montana tools to confront the real threat of human trafficking.
House Billing 218, sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, is the main vehicle remaining for directing revenue to communities seeing more demand for public infrastructure and services with the Bakken boom.
Ankney amended HB218 to allow the appropriation also to be used for grants to “counseling programs related to sex trafficking and criminal solicitation issues, especially concerning youth; or law enforcement personnel for the Department of Justice.” HB218, which is cosponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, passed the House last week 93-6 and was referred to Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
As they did a dozen years ago, lawmakers have a found bipartisan support for protecting Montana’s children from those who would enslave them. Let’s prevent promotion of prostitution in 2013.