Ex-congresswoman Smith testifies in favor of tougher sex-trafficking penalties

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OLYMPIA — Southwest Washington's former congresswoman turned anti-sex-trafficking advocate testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in favor of tougher penalties for those who traffic and solicit prostitutes younger than 18.

Linda Smith, founder and president of Vancouver-based Shared Hope International, said the bill to create those stricter penalties is needed to help define child sex-trafficking. The bill also will make the state's human-trafficking law a more powerful tool to prosecute traffickers, Smith said.

"The crime of trafficking itself in Washington state does not distinguish between adults and minors, and it does not say that any minor involved in commercial sex is a trafficking victim," Smith said after the hearing before the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Smith said the current flaw in Washington's trafficking laws is the "requirement to prove that force, fraud or coercion was used to cause a child under 18 to be used in a commercial sex act."

The bill removes that requirement from cases involving a minor, meaning a defendant cannot claim the minor consented to any sexual acts. The bill also mandates that anyone soliciting a prostitute younger than 18 is charged with a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

"We are taking away excuses as to why you might have had sex with a child," Smith said. "There is no excuse."

Also testifying at the hearing were two survivors of sex-trafficking, who did not wish to disclose their full names. One of those women, Marie, detailed a life of child abuse that soon turned into a life of crime and drug abuse.

Marie's stepfather sexually abused her and allowed his friends to abuse her, too. She experienced drug addiction and pregnancy, and she was prostituted frequently. At age 16, she tried to escape from a violent man by stabbing him, and as a result she spent 4 years and 8 months in jail for manslaughter.

Marie had difficulty finding work because of her criminal history, and she was unable to get into a long-term drug rehabilitation program. That's when she went to Shared Hope International for help a few years ago.

"I didn't have the tools to be normal -- I didn't even know what that meant," Marie said. "I'm asking that this bill does pass today for future victims, that they don't see the same path that I saw."

The other woman testifying, Brianna, pointed out that pimps and traffickers go after minors because they are easier to persuade.

"Now I know trafficking is real, traffickers choose and befriend their victims before they are sold, and average girls are vulnerable," Brianna said.

Joe Banks, a detective with the King County Sheriff's Office, also testified in favor of the bill by saying it would help police track down pimps and rescue trafficked girls.

"Any tools to help go after the pimps is helpful," Banks said.

The only person speaking in opposition to Senate Bill 5669 was Thomas Weaver, an attorney representing the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The bill would raise the age from 10 to 14 of children allowed to testify in an area separate from the accused.

"I believe this age increase makes the statute particularly vulnerable on a constitutional basis," he said. "Everyone is guaranteed the constitutional right to confront your accuser."

The age increase for separate-room testimony is intended to make victims more willing to testify, according to Shared Hope International's website. Prosecutors often rely on the willingness and availability of victims to testify against traffickers.

Evidence of a victim's past sexual behavior would not be admissible if offered to attack the victim's credibility in cases of trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

"A child cannot give consent to their own victimization," Smith said.

According to Shared Hope International's website, at least 100,000 American children are exploited through pornography and prostitution every year.

Smith served as a Washington state representative from 1983 to 1987, as a state senator from 1987 to 1994, and as a U.S. Congresswoman from 1995 to 1999. She represented Southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District.