Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arizona Republicans want those sex trafficking minors to get life in prison without parole

By Bob Christie
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Ignoring pleas from Democrats that victims could be caught up in harsh sentencing, Republican lawmakers on Monday sent a measure to the November ballot that if passed by voters in November would require those convicted of sex trafficking minors to spend life in prison with no chance of ever being released.
The vote in the Arizona House on an identical measure already passed by the Senate bypasses Democratic governor Katie Hobbs. It joins several other measures already sent to the ballot by Republican lawmakers who hope that voters will back measures Hobbs was likely to veto. Majority Republicans are considering more than a dozen other ballot referrals this session.
The sex trafficking measure did receive some Democratic votes in the Senate but none in the House.
The measure, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, and in the House by Rep. Selena Bliss, R-Prescott, is touted as the Children Are Not For Sale Act.
It's intent is to ensure that anyone who recruits a girl or boy under the age of 18 into prostitution or profits from their use as a prostitute gets no quarter from the legal system.
But it also allows prosecutors to bring similar charges -- with similar punishment -- against anyone who pays for sex with a minor. And that would even apply if the person with whom the arrangement is being made is a police decoy and no sex actually occurs.
``What we want to do in Arizona is end the act of selling and buying children for sex,'' Bliss said during a hearing on the measure.
It will be enacted if a majority of Arizona voters back it in November’s general election.
Advocates for children who lobby the Legislature called it a needed deterrent. And members heard from trafficking victims, the director of a youth treatment center in Prescott and law enforcement about the impact of sex trafficking on minors.
But Democrats repeatedly raised concerns about sex trafficking victims themselves being wrapped up in the proposed law’s sweeping mandate for a life term with no chance of getting out.
They pointed to previous laws passed by the Legislature that allow victims who are prosecuted after being forced to help their pimps traffic others get their conviction overturned. That would no longer be possible if the measure passes, Democrats argued.
``This would send teenagers to prison for life,'' Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said during the Senate vote a week ago. ``It could be fixed to not harm the victims.''
She said, though, that the sponsors were not interested in making those changes.
``Instead, we have a very extreme version that could send teenagers to prison for life who have already been sex trafficked themselves,'' she said.
``They are the victims of this crime,'' Epstein said. ``They have been coerced, and they are teenagers and this would be sending them to prison themselves.''
Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, scoffed at the notion that victims of trafficking would be swept up in the harsh sentencing regimes.
``An argument that this would harm victims is absolutely ridiculous,'' Petersen said. For that to happen, he said, courts would have to fail, and he finds that unlikely.
Petersen also said that if a problem does develop, there is a procedure that would allow the Legislature to amend the voter-approved measure, though that would require a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. Finally, he said, the governor could issue a pardon.
``But guess what folks? Evil is real,'' Petersen said.
``And this is absolute evil,'' he continued. ``Quite frankly, this too soft if you ask me. This is too light for the people who destroy a child forever.''
Because the proposal refers to an existing sex trafficking law, Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, argued that lawmakers could change that law without a supermajority vote. But any lessening of criminal laws by Arizona’s Legislature, at least under current Republican majorities, is extremely difficult.
Some Democrats also argued that current law already allows courts to levy very harsh sentences for sex trafficking crimes and called the proposal an unneeded political stunt.
Currently, a single conviction under the state’s sex trafficking law carries a presumptive 20 year sentence. And prosecutors can and sometimes do bring multiple charges that allow judges to ``stack'' sentences to be served consecutively so that they are essentially life terms.
That’s the issue that Pamela Hicks, a defense attorney who belongs to a group known as Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, raised during a House hearing. She also noted that as written, the measure could sweep in a young adult who offered money to a 17-year-old girl if she would come over an “cuddle.”
Rep. Annalise Ortiz, D-Phoenix, urged GOP members to reject the measure during Monday's House vote, saying their failure to amend the proposal to protect sex trafficking victims means it should not pass as is.
``We can vote this down and we can fix the underlying statutes so that we do not unintentionally put minors away for life, minors who are victims themselves of sex trafficking,” Ortiz said.
``This is not a hypothetical.'' she said. ``It happens that there are victims who are used to coerce other victims into the trade. That is the harsh reality and we do not want those minors who have been severely traumatized locked up because of this bill.''
But Bliss pushed back, saying opponents were trying to district lawmakers from the clear purpose of the bill.
``This bill is solid,'' she said.
``It is going to protect minors and Arizona children from being sex trafficked,'' Bliss said. ``We're sending a strong message here in Arizona, that our children are not for sale. Not now. Not ever.''
On Twitter: @AZChristieNews