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August 29, 2016

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Sex trafficking victims plead with lawmakers to strengthen law

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Cathleen Allison / AP

Amy Ayoub, center, wipes away tears after testifying on the dangers of sex trafficking at the Legislative Building, in Carson City, Nev. on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. Andrea Swanson, left, Ayoub, and Michon Martin, with the Nevada Attorney General’s office, were among more than 100 people who attended a hearing on a bill that would strengthen the laws on sex trafficking and improve social services and legal protection for victims.

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Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto speaks at a news conference at the State Legislature in Carson City Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Nevadans for the Common Good, a coalition of faith-based organizations, are learning about the legislative process as they lobby for Assembly Bill 67. The bill would strengthen the laws against sex traffickers.

Legislators heard emotional pleas to strengthen Nevada’s sex trafficking laws this morning from a victim of sex trafficking and a mother whose daughter was victimized by a pimp.

“You take a domestic violence abuser, you take a rapist and you take a child abuser and you put them all in one and you have a pimp,” said Andrea Swanson, who told a packed legislative hearing room about how her 18-year-old daugher was swept from her into a life of sex trafficking.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is pushing a bill that would ease prosecution of sex trafficking and increase punishment for pimps convicted of sex trafficking.

Her argument is that punishment under current law does not fit the crime, which she said proliferates in Nevada in part because the law isn’t strong enough to dissuade sex trafficking and involuntary servitude.

“To hear anybody say that this doesn’t happen in Nevada, and I wish it didn’t, it’s just false,” she said. “It’s happening and it’s time to take action.”

Receiving applause from the audience, Swanson called on legislators to pass Masto’s bill. Failure, she said, would only help pimps continue to victimize young women like her daughter.

“They need our ignorance, they need our denial and they need our inaction,” she said.

The bill makes sweeping changes to the state’s archaic pandering statutes, upping the penalty for sex trafficking to put that felony on the same level as the state’s sexual assault laws, disallowing probation for people convicted for sex trafficking, allowing courts to order those convicted to pay restitution to victims, and requiring that someone convicted of sex trafficking must register as a Tier I sex offender, among other provisions.

“If we are going to treat this as a serious crime, it requires a serious penalty,” Masto said.

Many women brought personal stories to the Legislature about their own experiences as sex trafficking victims or their work with victims. They described instances in which they or others were burned, choked, raped, suffocated, cut, threatened, branded and psychologically denigrated by pimps.

While rushing through testimony and technical issues of the bill during a lengthy hearing, Assembly Judiciary chairman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, thanked them for sharing their stories.

“You all are heroes,” he said. “This is how good policies start, by those of you who are brave enough to share your stories.”

Judge William Voy of the Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County testified in favor of the bill, arguing for a controversial provision of the bill that would require the prosecutor’s consent to waive a preliminary hearing.

He and other law enforcement officials said defense attorneys for alleged pimps will often waive the hearing to buy more time and ultimately dissuade the woman or man bringing valuable testimony to the legal process.

“I don’t care what you put on paper as far as length of sentence or whether they have to register as a sex offender,” Voy said. “Unless you have a successful prosecution you never get to that point.”

Many of the members of the Legislature’s judiciary committees zeroed in on the provision requiring prosecutor approval for waiving a preliminary hearing, noting it’s an expansion of state power.

“Defense attorneys I spoke to said this is a hill that they will die on,” said Sen. Mark Hutchinson, R-Las Vegas. “This will fundamentally change what we’ve known for decades and decades.”

Legislators also expressed concerns that the technical language of the bill could inadvertently criminalize other legal activity.

“This is the most significant piece of human rights legislation that I have ever been associated with, said Mark Jackson district attorney, Douglas County, testifying in favor of the bill.

Representatives from the public defenders offices in Clark and Washoe counties testified against the bill, calling it overly expansive.

While Masto said that the bill has “nothing to do” with the state’s legal brothel industry, a lobbyist for the legal brothel industry asked that she put language into the bill that specifically exempts the state’s “legal, controlled and regulated houses of prostitution.”

Masto and representatives from her office took notes from legislators and will likely return with changes to the bill at another hearing.

Nevada’s gaming industry also spoke in favor of the legislation.

“I would hate to be the legislator who kills this bill,” said John Caparella of the Nevada Resort Association.

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