A bill toughening penalties for sex traffickers and their customers was introduced Wednesday in the Legislature, while senators argued about the rules under which they should operate.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat, said the sex trafficking bill she introduced reflects the work of a broad coalition including Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, the Women’s Fund of Omaha, and the Nebraska Family Alliance. And she said the purpose of the bill is straightforward. "We are taking the penalties for both traffickers and purchasers and increasing them significantly," Pansing Brooks said.
Pansing Brooks said the vast majority of prostitution involves people who are being controlled by a trafficker. She said currently, traffickers face a maximum of 20 years in prison. But there is not a minimum, and she said traffickers often get off with probation, which she called a slap on the wrist. Her bill would increase the penalty for trafficking to between one year and life in prison.
Learn more about sex trafficking in Nebraska from the NET News "Sold for Sex" project; visit the web site to watch the new 30 minute documentary "Sold for Sex: Trafficking in Nebraska," which examines how trafficking happens in Nebraska, the fight to stop it and what is needed to help victims. The web site also includes additional video content, and access previous reporting and resource on the subject.
Also under the bill, the penalty for soliciting someone who is a victim of trafficking for sex, now 0 to 4 years, would increase to between 1 and 50 years. Pansing Brooks said her bill will probably "ruffle some feathers" among people who think the proposed new penalties are too harsh. "There has been a feeling that at times ‘boys will be boys.’ And that this is just a normal thing, and that this is among consenting adults. And it’s quite clear that this is not among consenting adults," she said.
Pansing Brooks said it is important to get away from terminology that reflects old ways of thinking about the problem. "I think most people would think of the trafficker as a pimp. And I don’t like using the word ‘pimp’ or ‘john" because I think that those words, in common parlance in our communities, it makes us think that ‘Well, that couldn’t be anybody we would know,’" she said. "I believe that there are people who we may even know in our communities who are purchasers. And purchaser is something that’s a little bit easier to grapple with and understand than the fact that somebody’s a ‘john.’"
And Pansing Brooks said the message of the harsher penalties should be clear. "We are stopping trafficking. People better be aware of it. If you’re out purchasing sex, you’d better be on notice that we are not allowing the trafficking of vulnerable people – children or other vulnerable people," she said.
The bill is one of just under 300 on all different topics that have been introduced so far this session.
Wednesday afternoon, the Rules Committee heard various proposals on how the Legislature should conduct itself. Among them was a proposal by Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln to say debate could not be cut off sooner than 8 hours on the first round of debate, 4 on the second, and 4 on the third. The proposal is aimed at regulating the practice of filibustering, or trying to talk a bill to death, which requires a supermajority of two-thirds of the Legislature to cut off and get to a vote. Time limits have not been in the formal rules in recent years, leaving it up to the presiding officer to determine whether there’s been enough "full and fair debate" to allow a cloture motion.
Last year, in an attempt to limit time spent on filibusters, then-Speaker Galen Hadley cut back the first round time limit from 8 to 6 hours. Bolz said her proposal would ensure consistency and fairness. "The rules book specifically references that the determination of full and fair debate is at the ‘opinion’ of the presiding officer. And I don’t know that it’s best practice for our rules to be determined by the opinion of the presiding officer. I think all bills should be treated the same in terms of debate," Bolz said.
But Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, newly elected speaker of the Legislature, said if Bolz’ proposed time limits had been followed last year, filibusters would have eaten up 44 days of the 60 day session. "I truly believe that there needs to be some flexibility left within the system. And I think part of that relies heavily on the selection of the speaker that things will be fairly handled," he said.
Lawmakers are also considering the always-contentious issue of whether leadership elections should be conducted by public or private ballot. Whatever the Rules committee recommends will then be voted on by the full legislature.