Yellowstone County advocates are aiming to crack down on human trafficking with a bill in the Legislature that would target pimps and broaden the scope of prosecutable offenses.
Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, is carrying SB 147, after a year of efforts by the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force to identify legal avenues to address the problem.
The group’s co-chair, Stephanie Baucus, said Billings has a significant trafficking problem, particularly with illicit massage parlors.
“Human trafficking may not be the most prevalent crime in Billings, but it’s one of the worst crimes in Billings,” Baucus said.
The bill would criminalize paying for sexual contact that is direct and not through a clothing barrier. The state’s prostitution laws currently ban paying for sexual intercourse, but Baucus said that fails to capture other types of sexual activity people are forced into.
The bill would also make the same aggravated penalties available for prosecutors to use against pimps as it currently does for people who pay for sex. Baucus said currently the aggravated penalty laws target only the customers, “which is unconscionable, because the pimps are the ones behind the sexual activity, the ones who are literally selling women, sometimes boys.”
Under the bill, someone convicted of promoting prostitution or aggravated promotion of prostitution would face a mandatory 25 years in prison, with no possibility for parole, suspension or deferral, when the person engaging in prostitution is a trafficking victim or subjected to force, fraud or coercion. The offender must be 18 years old or more.
That's the same penalty that now exists when the individual being prostituted is a child.
The bill also:
- Adds pimping and sex trafficking to the list of crimes of violence; and
- Changes the definition of sexual consent to clarify that if the victim was a trafficking victim or was subjected to force, fraud or coercion, or if the defendant reasonably should have known that, then consent is negated.
SB 147 is slated for a hearing Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other trafficking-related efforts include proposed legislation by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, that aims to carve a civil, as opposed to criminal, path to thwart illicit massage activity by requiring each employee at the establishment to have a current professional license posted on the wall.
Many victims of trafficking are moved around the country, Zolnikov said, and don’t have the proper licenses or training to work as professional massage therapists. His bill would enact fines against the business for violations of the licensing display requirement and, if unpaid, the fines could result in an injunction. The bill is still being drafted.
Zolnikov also proposes to ask for new funding for law enforcement positions dedicated to fighting trafficking. Currently he’s proposing to request $1 million over the next biennium to fund two statewide positions with the Division of Criminal Investigation and four part-time positions with local law enforcement agencies, but he said that dollar amount could decrease as the proposal gets refined.
In Billings, the City Council has been working to draft an ordinance banning massage parlors from selling sexual services. A vote on the ordinance is currently slated for March.
Licensed massage therapists and other professionals have been vocal supporters of efforts to crack down on illicit massage-related activity, asking for more oversight to protect their safety and the integrity of their profession.
Baucus, the task force co-chair, said that on any given night in Billings, there are at least nine girls available for commercial sex, citing a statistic she said FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter frequently mentions at task force trainings.
The FBI is monitoring 15 massage parlors in Billings for potential illegal activity, according to a recent press release from the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force. One female, whose age was not specified, generates between $3,800 and $18,000 a month for the services she performs at one of the unnamed businesses.
The Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force conducts trainings each month for local stakeholders, including neighborhood associations, churches and trucking companies.
The task force was the first of its kind in Montana. Since forming in 2016, it has helped other counties around the state organize similar task forces, with the goal of convening organizations already fighting trafficking to share resources and eliminate gaps in services.