A tractor-trailer truck zooms down the Maine Turnpike in this photo taken from the South Street bridge in Biddeford in December. On Tuesday, Speaker of the Maine House, Sara Gideon, introduced new legislation to equip truckers with the tools to reduce human trafficking in Maine. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

A tractor-trailer truck zooms down the Maine Turnpike in this photo taken from the South Street bridge in Biddeford in December. On Tuesday, Speaker of the Maine House, Sara Gideon, introduced new legislation to equip truckers with the tools to reduce human trafficking in Maine. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune

AUGUSTA — A new bill in the 128th Legislature would take steps to reduce human trafficking in Maine.

LD 1277, “An Act to Combat Human Trafficking by Requiring Prevention Training for Commercial Drivers,” would educate truck drivers to know the warning signs of human trafficking on Maine’s highways.

It would also empower drivers to report signs of suspicious activity to law enforcement, said the bill’s sponsor, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

“I think that we understand human trafficking is a very real issue across the country and that truck drivers are in this very unique position to identify human trafficking as it’s happening, and who have successfully been able to blow the whistle and save a lot of people from being forced into prostitution and sex slavery” Gideon said in an interview Wednesday. “I think everyone recognizes that.”

Gideon said a comprehensive anti-trafficking approach is necessary, and will involve collaboration by multiple stakeholders.

As part of that comprehensive approach, Gideon’s bill would require applicants for new commercial driver’s licenses to complete a nationally-recognized training program on preventing human trafficking in the trucking industry to receive their licenses. The rule would go into effect April 1, 2018, and applicants for licenses could take the test in person or online.

The bill also requires that all new and renewed commercial driver’s licenses be accompanied by a wallet-sized card that outlines signs of and how to report human trafficking, including a telephone number for a national human trafficking hotline.

Carey Nason, director of Hope Rising, a five-bed, live-in facility for victims of human trafficking run by Biddeford’s St. Andre Home, said legislation may help provide better resources to combat trafficking on Maine’s roadways.

“I think there’s all kinds of things that we can do collectively to address trafficking, and that’s across the board: everything from law enforcement to providers to community members, and there are many ways we can all come together,” she said in an interview. “What happens with legislation is it can provide greater tools for law enforcement, for instance, to respond. It can provide greater resources for various agencies to address trafficking.”

Maine is no stranger to the human trafficking market. The state has seen so many cases of human trafficking, in fact, that Hope Rising opened as Maine’s first residential treatment program for women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.

The 2015 Maine Human Trafficking Needs Assessment found there are an estimated 200 to 300 cases of human trafficking annually in Maine, using a combination of known statistics, surveys of law enforcement and interviews with service providers.

When it comes to human trafficking, Maine doesn’t have the characteristics of other areas where human trafficking primarily occurs. But because of its large number of migrant workers — between 10,000 and 12,000 taking part in the yearly blueberry harvest — and its status as a border state, trafficking “under the radar” is a concern, according to the MHTNA.

“This is especially tragic and alarming to consider that often the victims are children,” Gideon said in her testimony before the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation on Tuesday.

Gideon’s bill isn’t the only one in the Legislature aimed at targeting human trafficking, especially against children.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, on Wednesday introduced a bill Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that would establish new crimes to protect minors from sex traffickers.
 
Diamond’s bill — LD 1261 “An Act To Protect Minors from Sex Trafficking” — would strengthen Maine’s laws protecting children by making it a crime to entice minors electronically and to arrange for travel for the purpose of sex tourism, a release from the senator’s office says.

The bill also broadens the definition of aggravated sex trafficking to include any attempt to solicit sex with a minor.

“This bill will make it tougher for those who would engage in the heinous crime of sex trafficking using children as their victims,” Diamond said in a prepared statement. “It is critically important that we do all that we can to protect our kids from these people, and make the punishment as tough as possible.”

Diamond’s words reflect Gideon’s sentiment that public policy must be comprehensive and stop trafficking before it begins.

“Effective public policy to address human trafficking cannot only address offender accountability and increase prosecution, but must also address root causes of the issue as well as enhance safety, services, and dignity for victims,” Gideon said. “It must also provide education and awareness to those who can stop this crime in its tracks.”

Gideon said truckers are an “invaluable resource” in the fight against human trafficking.
“As the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways, they are in a unique position to make a difference and close loopholes to traffickers who seek to exploit our transportation system for their personal gain,” she said Tuesday.

And although Nason declined to comment directly on Gideon’s bill, saying she had yet to read into the details, she agreed truckers are vital in the fight against the crime.

“I do think that truckers and the trucking industry can and do pay a valuable role in addressing trafficking,” she said. “Truckers are on the road, truckers encounter so many different people and different situations and they definitely have a very unique view of what’s going on.”

Gideon’s bill was modeled after a free training and certification program, including online videos and multiple choice quizzes, developed by national organization Truckers Against Trafficking, or TAT, that gives drivers the tools they need to identify and combat trafficking on the road.

Only one other state, Ohio, already requires commercial license applicants to complete TAT certification. However, many individual operators across the nation also require their drivers to be TAT certified.

While none testified in opposition to Gideon’s bill on Tuesday, she said, representatives from the Maine Motor Transport Association expressed their concern over a program being mandated upon its drivers by the state.

“I said to my colleague, ‘Look, we’re talking about essentially 40 minutes of somebody’s life as they are getting licensed in order to save somebody from years of essentially sexual slavery,’” Gideon said. “It’s women, it’s men and it’s even children who are victims to this really tragic and alarming crime.

“This is a real problem that we all have the ability, if we are trained to detect the warning signs, can actually help stop and address,” she said. “If we can save even one person by watching a 27-minute video, I think it’s worth it.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]



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