(Updated 4:47 p.m.) The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Monday on a bill that would make print and online publishers liable for felony charges if they run escort ads that turn out to be advertising minors.
The bill would make publishing escort ads a Class C felony, punishable with up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, if the ad could be proven to promote the sex trafficking of someone under 18.
At a Monday press conference, former House Speaker Jim Amann said the goal is to cut down on human trafficking within the state. With escort ads common in some newspapers and websites, Amann said pimps now have a safe business model.
“Today we live in a country where a person is more likely to serve time selling marijuana than to serve time selling a 14-year-old girl,” he said.
Amann said 300,000 minors are trafficked for sex every year across the U.S.
A former escort spoke in support of the legislation at the press conference. Though she wouldn’t give her name, she said human trafficking was common in the state.
“I am a victim of human trafficking who was sold through escort advertisements here in Connecticut,” she said. “What happened to me is not unique. It is happening right now to girls all over Connecticut through the blatant advertising in some of our most respected and well-read newspapers and websites.”
She said she was already 23 when she got involved with sex trafficking, but she encountered minors, including the girl who recruited her. She rejected the argument that prostitution was a victimless crime.
“No one sees what our pimps do to us. How they give us drugs to stay awake for days, feed us just enough to keep us skinny and looking young, tell us that making money for them by having sex with men is why we were put on this earth, and hit us for no reason,” she said.
People also don’t know how humiliating it is to be shopped for online or in newspapers like a “cheap gadget,” she said.
Rep. Jeffrey Berger, a Judiciary Committee member and former police officer, said he was “beyond shocked” by the scope and access to ads for escort services. The bill will target sex trafficking and its advertising components, he said.
Raymond Bechard, author of “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America,” said that only the state of Washington has passed a similar law. Bechard’s book examines the 2007 trial of Dennis Paris in Hartford Federal Court. Paris was convicted of sex trafficking two minors, one of them only 14.
Bechard said that prosecutors cited The Hartford Advocate over 60 times as Paris’s “exclusive channel” for selling girls.
“The Advocate’s escort section was the only thing Dennis Paris needed to find men willing to pay to have sex with his under-aged victims,” he said.
Despite the trial, escort ads are still common in the paper and online, he said, reading a few from this week’s Advocate. The bill would force publishers to verify the age of every escort they run an advertisement for, he said.
Amann, who wrote Connecticut’s law establishing a sex offender registry, said he was confident the bill would withstand First Amendment scrutiny.
“I don’t think the First Amendment is protecting women being sold on the Internet or in newspapers for sex. I’d really like to be involved in a Supreme Court debate on that one,” he said.
Amann said he hopes the bill will discourage publishers from running the ads.
“Aren’t they part of the pimping population if they’re involved in it?” he asked. “…If someone is making money off a young girl, who’s selling her body for sex, and they are well aware of it, what would you call them?”
Jennifer Humes, a spokeswoman for CT1 Media the media conglomerate that owns The Advocate, said the group is supportive of the committee’s efforts to combat the exploitation of minors. While CT1 Media will continue to work with lawmakers, she said there were problems with the bill.
“The current bill being offered by the committee, as-written, is problematic due to concerns of constitutionality, enforcement and the inability of newspaper publishers to comply,” she said in a statement.
Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice, wouldn’t comment on whether the bill was good policy but agreed it might be unconstitutional. It would be difficult to prove the criminal intent of publishers, he said.
“Typically for something to result in a criminal prosecution you have to prove that whoever you want to arrest, in this case the publisher, either knew or should have known that the end result of this was going to be some child would be used as a prostitute,” he said.
While lawmakers could make impose a small penalty, similar to the mandatory reporting statute, Lawlor said he doubted they could make it a felony.