Her name isn’t really Marie, but that’s the name she used Monday to protect her identity.
Marie is a victim of human trafficking, but as a survivor of that crime she is still looked upon as a criminal.
“Even though I was coerced by a pimp to live a life I did not choose, I was arrested for prostitution. That arrest stays with me every day of my life,” Marie said.
She said she was able to escape her pimp and has cooperated with law enforcement, yet she still has a criminal record so when she applies for a job or a loan she has to mention her past.
“Today I’m asking state lawmakers to set me free at last,” Marie said.
Marie was testifying in favor of legislation that would expunge the prostitution arrest record of human trafficking victims. That same bill would increase penalties for “johns” who solicit their services.
Raymond Bechard, the author of “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America,” examined the 2007 trial of Dennis Paris, who was convicted on 21 federal charges and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Paris was convicted of sex trafficking two minors, one of whom was only 14.
Bechard testified alongside Marie on Monday and explained that the bill would strengthen penalties for the pimps and it would make it possible for the women they sell to testify against them.
The legislation also would strengthen the penalty against “johns” by increasing the offense from a misdemeanor to a class B felony.
Bechand said the “johns” currently don’t face very stiff penalties. He said that since it’s a misdemeanor they’re often asked to write an essay and read it to women who were arrested for prostitution.
“This would make it a felony if the girl they were with was under 18,” Bechard said.
Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, wanted to know if the legislation would make all prostitution a felony.
Bechand explained there’s a difference between prostitution and human trafficking. He said prostitution is any sex act where there is an exchange of money or goods. Human trafficking takes place where there is coercion, force, or fraud involved.
“Typically, when there is a pimp you’re going to find one or all three of those elements,” Bechard said.
Smith said he was troubled by some of the language in the bill because if a john were out seeking a prostitute and had no knowledge about whether a woman was underage or belonged to a pimp, then the john could get charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
“I think if you’re out there and for whatever reason decide to get a prostitute, and now you’re looking at a class B felony. I don’t know, I have trouble with that one,” Smith said.
Bechard said he understands Smith may have trouble with that, but what he has trouble with is the “fact that someone is buying and selling someone who is perhaps 16 or 17.”
“I think that both parties — the purchaser and the seller, the pimp and the john, the purchaser who is the one paying money to do whatever he wants with her should be at least held as guilty, responsible, and accountable as the person selling that person,” Bechard said.
Smith said he’s not promoting underage sex and he understands Bechard’s point that if a person wants to engage in this behavior then they are taking the risk.
“We rarely address the demand side and for generations the punishment has been put on mostly the girls like Marie,” Bechard said. “they are the ones who have paid the price and they are the victims. The pimps — sometimes they’ll do 30 days, sometimes they’ll do 60 days.”
He said in order to address human trafficking they have to reduce the demand for it and punish the johns who are driving the marketplace.
Bechard was unable to quantify the problem in the state, but he suggested lawmakers go to Backpage.com and view the hundreds and hundreds of ads in the Connecticut section.
He said that if you’re going to traffic drugs and you get caught with the drugs you’re going to do time. But if you get caught with a girl, “you’re just with a girl.” Unlike the drug trade, human trafficking is 100 percent profit for these pimps. He said you don’t have to restock your inventory like you have to do with drugs.
“And you can sell your product very openly on the Internet,” Bechard said.
He said for every girl walking the street there are hundreds online being sold.
Bechard said lawmakers need to look no further than the Paris brothers to understand how differently the law is applied. Dennis Paris is serving more than two decades in a federal penitentiary in Arizona, but his brother, Jaykuan Paris, was arrested and charged in 2011 by the state with promoting second-degree prostitution. He pleaded no contest and will serve less than four years in prison.
A similar bill supported by all the female lawmakers in the General Assembly expands the offenses that are subject to forfeiture of money and property to include human trafficking and prostitution.