A state lawmaker from Scarborough wants Maine to create a new crime for those who force others to work against their will or coerce them into prostitution to support their addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Advocates for immigrants, the homeless and others in vulnerable situations – including the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and Preble Street – spoke in favor of the change during a public hearing Wednesday at the State House.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, told lawmakers that Maine law does not now address forced labor, making it hard for law enforcement to prosecute cases that essentially amount to slavery. Some of the offenses involve exploiting vulnerable people, including children, immigrants, refugees or those with substance-use disorders who are compelled to work – often as prostitutes – for their drugs or alcohol.

“During my time in Augusta, arrests have been made in my suburban district and I have met a number of survivors, some as young as my own children, others older than I am,” Volk told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The change would make it easier to prosecute these crimes, but it would also help some victims by allowing easier access to visa programs meant to protect those who witness human trafficking or domestic violence.

Volk’s bill, L.D. 1740, would establish the crimes of forced labor and criminal forced labor, which would apply to crimes involving minors. The offenses would be Class C and Class B crimes, punishable by up to 5 and 10 years in prison, respectively.

Ridelphine Katabesha, a case manager for Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition in Portland, testified in favor of Volk’s bill, noting that her organization had helped 150 victims over the last four years.

She read from an account by one of her clients, an immigrant, who had been recruited to come to Maine to work but then had her passport withheld by her employer, who also failed to keep to the terms of the contract she believed she had entered into. The employer wouldn’t return the passport or allow her to leave, Katabesha said.

“It didn’t take long until that work turned into the most horrible experience I had ever faced in my life,” the client wrote. “I was not allowed to leave the house where I was being kept and not allowed to contact my family and that is when I found out that I was in a trafficking situation. I was isolated, intimidated, didn’t get enough food or any of my basic needs met. I stayed in that situation for months and didn’t know what to do.”

Members of the committee, including state Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, expressed support for the bill, but also expressed surprise that labor trafficking wasn’t already clearly defined in Maine law.

“It really gets a little crazy in my head because the issue of labor trafficking in particular sounds so much like slavery,” Reckitt said.

While it is unclear how many people may be in situations similar to those described by Katabesha, Volk told the committee that there was little doubt the problem exists in Maine, noting that “modern-day slavery victimizes 27 million people worldwide” and that human trafficking became the second fastest growing criminal activity behind drug trafficking starting in 2012.

Alysia Melnick, speaking for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a statewide group that works with immigrants and asylum-seekers in Maine, said the group supports Volk’s bill.

“ILAP … is grateful to the sponsor (Volk) for bringing it forward,” Melnick said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

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