BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota lawmakers are considering several measures aimed at combating the increasing incidence of prostitution in the state, including increasing the penalties for sex traffickers and providing funding for services to victims coerced into the sex trade.
Legislation discussed Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee also would prohibit sexually exploited youths from being treated as criminals, and would allow victims of sex trafficking to have prostitution convictions expunged from their records.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told lawmakers that sex trafficking was only “suspected” in North Dakota until a decade or so ago. But he and others told the committee it has become a bigger problem throughout the now oil-rich state.
“This is a problem around the globe, across the U.S. and yes, even here in North Dakota,” Stenehjem said.
Christina Sambor, an attorney and coordinator of FUSE, a statewide anti-trafficking coalition, told lawmakers that “commercial sex” in North Dakota is widely advertised on the Internet.
“Sadly, you only need to take a digital step into this world to see the prevalence of trafficking in our state,” Sambor told the committee, which took no action on the legislation Wednesday.
No one opposed the package of measures and several spoke in favor of it, including people who work with victims, lawyers, a judge and officials from church and advocacy groups.
Several testified that services for victims are key to keeping them safe and helping in the prosecution of sex traffickers. Victim advocates said the 20 or so domestic violence shelters across the state are full and workers at those facilities often are not trained to deal with victims of sex trafficking.
Republican Sen. Dick Dever of Bismarck is the main sponsor of a bill to provide $1 million over the next two years to fund treatment and support services for sex trafficking victims.
“Morally, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Windie Lazenko of Minot, who said she has been a victim of sex trafficking, recently formed 4her North Dakota to help others. She told the committee that with appropriate support and services, “survivors of sex trafficking can and do recover from the trauma associated with trafficking and prostitution to lead full, amazing, powerful lives.”
Lazenko said in an interview that she has worked with more than 20 victims of sex trafficking in North Dakota in the past year. All have been women, she said, but “I highly suspect” there also are males being sexually exploited.
Stenehjem said the legislation, which he called “a fight on all fronts against this pernicious problem,” also is aimed a male victims of trafficking, as well as at people made to work under pressure and against their will at any job.
This article was written by James Macpherson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.