November 8, 2013

Maine Voices: Women coerced into sex-trade work deserve chance for a clean slate

Rep. Amy Volk is appealing a decision on a bill that would give these victims the opportunity to recover and move on with their lives.

By Ellie Espling and Deb Sanderson

AUGUSTA — Last week, the six top Democrats in the Maine Legislature voted against Rep. Amy Volk’s bill that would allow courts to vacate the prostitution convictions of women who have fallen victim to human trafficking and engaged in the sex trade under duress or coercion.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, are members of the Maine House of Representatives.

We’re proud of our four Republican leaders for voting in favor of the bill to allow these women to move on with their lives with a clean slate.

The Legislative Council – the panel of all 10 members of legislative leadership – had met to approve bill ideas submitted for consideration during next year’s January to April session.

Some political observers have speculated that the Democratic leaders cast their surprising votes with the next election in mind, wanting to deny a Republican woman in a targeted district an opportunity to champion an important women’s issue, thereby keeping the Democratic Party’s phony “Republican war on women” message alive and maintaining their exclusive claim on issues of women’s rights.

Even Portland Democrat Jon Hinck agreed that the decision was political.

If that is true, it means we have reached a new low in politics.

After staying silent about their reasons for opposing this bill, Democrats finally came up with an excuse not to vote for it, stating that Rep. Volk’s bill wasn’t an “emergency,” as all bills introduced for next year are supposed to be.

Apparently Senate President Justin Alfond’s bill to expand wine tasting and allow cheese to be served with wine at such events was more of an emergency to them, because it got their vote.

If one woman has to go one more year without a job or a college admission because this Legislature refused to act, then that is absolutely an emergency – at least more so than a top Democrat’s emergency wine tasting bill.

In a recent interview, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant attacked Amy Volk, saying she only introduced this bill to “soften her hard edges.” He went on to downplay the effects of human trafficking, saying “I just don’t know if it’s an issue at all here in Maine.”

The Democratic Party chairman has since apologized for his remarks, calling them “ill-conceived” and saying that he should have done his homework first. We thank him for doing the right thing and we hope that legislative leaders in his party come around on this important bill for Maine women.

The unfortunate reality is that human trafficking is a growing problem in our state and even if it only affected one woman, it would be one too many.

Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam told a radio station recently that human trafficking “is not a Thailand problem. ... This is a Maine problem; this is a Portland problem; this is a Presque Isle problem.”

Calls from Maine to the national human trafficking hotline have doubled since 2010 and the people on the ground tell us this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Rep. Volk has been involved in this issue outside the Legislature, participating in her church’s fundraising effort to fight human trafficking.

She was inspired to introduce her bill by a report from the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking, which placed Maine in the bottom half of all states for the strength of our human-trafficking laws.

We had ranked even lower, but thankfully, Gov. LePage signed a bill into law this year that cracked down on the “pimps” who control women in the sex trade. That moved us from the Polaris Project’s “Tier 3” to “Tier 2.”

Rep. Volk’s bill would give these women an opportunity to make their case to a judge that their conviction is not warranted.

They would be required to show that they were under duress or coercion when forced into the sex trade, and their convictions would be wiped out.

We must give the victims of human trafficking a chance to move on and recover. But in order to do so, we must put politics aside.

Rep. Amy Volk will appeal Democratic leadership’s decision on Nov. 21, so please, call the offices of the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate and urge them to make helping Maine’s most vulnerable women at least as much of a priority as wine tasting.

– Special to the Press Herald

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