BOISE After two hours of debate and testimony, the bill that would make patronizing a prostitute a felony in Idaho on the first offense was held in an Idaho House committee at the discretion of the chair on a vote of 11-6 Feb. 1.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee that when he asked what he could do about human trafficking, he was told making purchasing prostitution a felony on first offense was “No. 1.”
The punishment for purchasing sex in Idaho currently is a misdemeanor on the first and second offense. The third offense is a felony. In no other U.S. state is purchasing sex a felony on the first offense.
“This would be landmark,” Crane said. “You guys would be on the forefront combatting human trafficking.”
However, committee members expressed multiple concerns regarding the legislation throughout the hearing, and many asserted repeatedly that their reservations about the bill did not mean the offense was OK.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on this panel who thinks that prostitution or human trafficking is something to be desired, to be clear,” Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, told Crane. “But you’ve not explained how this is more than just simply a statement. Like you said, it’s not a solution, it’s a statement. I want to make sure that we’re providing solutions.”
Chaney later made the motion to hold the bill, substituting Rep. Luke Malek’s (R-Couer d’Alene) motion to send it to the House floor with a do-pass recommendation.
“I think we set this strong value statement and it says ‘If you want to engage in this sort of behavior, go do it somewhere else, if it’s a necessary part of your life, go to a different state,’ and hopefully they run out of safe places to practice this sort of thing,” Malek said just before making his motion.
Four former victims of human trafficking testified in favor of Crane’s bill, saying punishing the johns more severely and getting them off the streets would be beneficial.
Due to their requests and for their protection, survivors’ initials will be used in place of their names for this story.
“There wouldn’t be any prostitutes if there were no buyers,” 15-year-old survivor M.S. said.
She said she was trafficked starting at the age of 13. Another former victim, A.F., said she did not want buyers to continue to be let off easy after purchasing sex from human trafficking victims.
“Some of the stories I’ve heard from fellow survivors as well as my own experiences, well up a sense of righteous indignation. It should do the same to you,” she told the panel. “Knowing the policy the Scandinavians have put in place, having cut trafficking in half, I and every other survivor… will not be satisfied until policy is to follow their lead. This will continue to come before you until it is passed, as greater evidence grows from this policy from overseas.”
Dawn and Mike Maglish, founder and CEO of InsideOut Inc., respectively, also testified in favor of the bill. Crane said Dawn Maglish initially inspired him to sponsor the bill.
“Prostitution and human trafficking go hand in hand,” she said.
Tom Arkoosh, representing the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, was the only one to testify against the bill.
“Obviously we abhor, everybody in this room abhors human trafficking… but for that reason… we disagree with this bill and we adamantly oppose this bill,” he said. “If I understand the goal of this bill, in the thinking, it is that a harsh punishment will prevent elicit sex will decrease demand of victims.”
Arkoosh said the bill would not work, and instead, identifying potential victims is the first step.
The controversy surrounding the bill hinged on it addressing prostitution, rather than human trafficking specifically and the legislation leading to putting more people in Idaho’s already full prisons, or, conversely, making sympathetic prosecutors and judges hesitant to impose felonies on offenders. The ultimate argument against voting on the bill was that committee members still needed to hear from the courts and law enforcement.
“When it comes to policy we need to do more than just send a message, we need to address the issue and address it correctly,” said Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, who voted in favor of holding the bill. “And I think that the way to do that, is getting everybody around the table, having these ladies come in and talk to those stakeholders, talk to the law enforcement, talk to the courts.”
Perry and a few others also said the addition of a new, broader definition of sexual contact in the bill made them hesitant.
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Boise, also said he wanted more information before committing to the bill either way.
“This is something that for me, I still need to digest a little bit, it’s clearly an important issue,” he said. “The overriding question for me, as it pertains to this bill, is this the solution? And I don’t know if I can answer yes.”
However, not all committee members wanted to wait.
“We’ve got a problem,” said Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, who voted against holding the bill. “This is a no-brainer. It’s getting worse, it’s not getting better. We can’t put this thing on hold.”
Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene also voted against holding it.
“I just think it deserves the opportunity to have an up or down vote today,” he said.
The general consensus seemed to be committee members wanted to decide on the bill this legislative session, rather than wait until next year. Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, voted in favor of holding the bill, but asked the chair whether it would be likely for the committee to see the bill again.
“Waiting is not cost-free,” Nate said. “There are consequences to having the statute stay the way it is, versus sending the message that Rep. Crane rightly makes, that Idaho should be sending.”
The chair, Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said he could “not promise 100 percent” but they could “certainly do what we can.”
Nina Rydalch covers the 2018 Idaho Legislature for the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research.