State Politics

Effort targeting customers of prostitutes is on hold amid lawmakers’ concerns

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, joined advocates against human trafficking and a handful of other lawmakers Jan. 11 at a Statehouse news conference to announce planned legislation.
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, joined advocates against human trafficking and a handful of other lawmakers Jan. 11 at a Statehouse news conference to announce planned legislation. The Spokesman-Review

An unusual bid to strengthen a little-used law into a tool against human trafficking is on hold in the Idaho Legislature, though its sponsor believes it may still succeed.

House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, last month proposed making patronizing a prostitute a first-time felony in Idaho. Current law deems it a misdemeanor until the third offense; Idaho would be the first state in the nation to treat the charge as a felony from the start.

The idea, Crane said, is to reduce human trafficking in Idaho by deterring the customers who benefit from it.

But members of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee voted 11-6 Thursday to hold the bill at the discretion of their chairman. That now leaves its fate to Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who said Friday morning that he hoped to work with Crane on concerns his committee members voiced.

Luker emphasized fighting trafficking is a priority, saying he wanted to “get to the bottom of the horrendous crime.”

“I support the concept,” he said. “But I share some of the concerns about the breadth of the bill.”

The vote followed more than two hours of testimony Thursday from advocates, and from trafficking victims who spoke about their experiences of being trafficked at a young age.

The Lewiston Tribune quoted one girl who went by the initials B.D. “On an average day, I’d see five johns,” she told lawmakers. “I was being raped multiple times every day. ... The johns are just as dangerous as the traffickers. Please make sure they pay for buying me.”

Another girl, M.S., said she was 13 when she was forced into prostitution, the Tribune reported.

“I want you to understand, there would be no prostitution if there weren’t any buyers,” she said. “I was held against my will for a very long time. Many times I’d tell grown men my age, but they didn’t care. They just wanted sex. I was severely abused and raped. It was horrible. There are so many more women out there who need the help this (bill) can provide.”

The current law appears to be rarely used in Idaho. Records collected by the Statesman show that between 2012 and 2017, Ada County prosecutors filed no charges for the crime of soliciting a prostitute. Canyon County authorities filed four charges in that time, all misdemeanors.

The Twin Falls Times-News found a similar dearth of charges in Twin Falls County. All three counties were far more likely to charge the people who brought the prostitutes to town, and the prostitutes themselves.

Authorities interviewed by the Times-News partially explained the numbers by pointing out sex trafficking is a difficult crime to detect, and even harder to investigate and prosecute.

Crane told the Statesman Friday that he believes changing the crime to a first-time felony would make it a higher priority for police and prosecutors, and perhaps increase its use. He told his fellow legislators Thursday that the change would send a “strong message,” and stressed the value of punishing a customer over a prostitute.

Members of the committee repeatedly said they wanted to combat sex trafficking, but brought up several concerns with the bill. They asked about cases where a person voluntarily becomes a prostitute, and whether a felony prison sentence was really the answer to the problem.

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa and a current candidate for Congress, noted Idaho already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. She inquired whether Crane had consulted the courts; he replied he had not, but would be willing to.

Lawmakers also requested more information from law enforcement, including prosecution statistics.

It’s unclear if or when the bill could return before the committee.