Missoula detective Guy Baker investigated and a caught a pimp for the first time in 2010, and the man was prosecuted for human trafficking. But, he didn’t get a prison sentence.

The following year, the pimp, Terrence Edwards, was charged with forcing two more women into sexual slavery. This time, Edwards served five years for his crimes. Shortly after his release, he started pimping again.

“Unless they’re in prison or dead, (pimps) will find a way to exploit young women,” Baker said.

Edwards was sentenced to 30 years in prison last year for human sex trafficking.

Policymakers at the state’s Legislature are considering a number of bills this session that attempt to close gaps that allow abusers and traffickers to walk free. Proposals include adding stricter regulations for massage parlors (which can sometimes be fronts for brothels), harsher penalties for sex traffickers and eliminating the statutes of limitations for prosecuting perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Montana has been working on this issue since 2013, with legislation enacted that strengthened the laws dealing with trafficking and others that launched public awareness campaigns about the issue. During the 2015 session, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula carried House Bill 89 at the request of Attorney General Tim Fox, which altered human trafficking policy. Lawmakers want to build on that progress this session.

The International Labor Organization estimates that at any given moment, more than 40 million people are living as modern-day slaves. The organization also reports that human slavery and trafficking generates $150 billion annually, making it the second most lucrative criminal industry behind drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Human slavery is lucrative because people are a “reusable resource,” unlike drugs, Baker said. 

Baker, who also works with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said people assume human trafficking and sexual slavery don’t happen in a sparsely populated state like Montana, but that’s just not true. He said he’s worked 50 cases of human trafficking since 2014.

“This is happening in Montana, and it’s happening in Montana every single day,” Baker told a panel of lawmakers last week.

Closing Loopholes

Baker was speaking in support for Senate Bill 147, which is carried by Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings. The Senate voted to advance the bill 49-1 last week and the House Judiciary Committee moved it to the full House Friday on a 19-0 vote.

One section of the policy would eliminate victim’s consent as a defense for human traffickers in cases when victims have been coerced or otherwise fraudulently persuaded into participating in sexual slavery.

The most common misconception about women who are forced into sexual slavery is that they are the same as prostitutes -- women who chose sex work as a profession, Baker said. He said this could not be further from the truth, that women who are trafficked often have no choice but to say yes to sex work or face violent retaliation.

Baker said traffickers find ways to cut victims off from their family and the outside world. Even if they aren’t physically restrained, Baker said these women are often manipulated through fear and isolation.

“The chains on these girls are psychological,” Baker said.

Baker said that nationally, traffickers target kids between ages 12 and 14, and that youth who are homeless, have been previously abused and or in foster care are most vulnerable to trafficking.

Stephanie Baucus is an attorney who helped create the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force and helped draft SB 147, which would also require harsher penalties for traffickers than what’s in practice now. While human trafficking happens in all of Montana’s major cities, Billings is known to be a hub for forced sexual slavery, Baucus said.

Baucus sat on a human trafficking task force in Washington, D.C. and was a liaison to the U.S. Department of Justice before moving to Billings and helping to create the task force. She said the group is focused on prosecution of perpetrators, protection of victims and vulnerable individuals, and prevention of further trafficking.

She said current law needs tweaking.

“We should really be focused on redressing harm,” Baucus said.

Baucus said it’s difficult to understand the extent of this criminal industry in Montana because there is a lack of data, resources and funding to track human trafficking. However, Baucus said research does show that mental illness, addiction, abuse, foster care and homelessness make youth more vulnerable to trafficking.

Baucus said 14- to 15-year-old girls are sold for sex for up to $900 an hour in Billings.

The task force is attempting to close the gaps not only in the law, but in resources. It’s created a network of agencies, law enforcement and advocacy organizations in attempt to stop the cycle of vulnerable persons who fall into a cycle of violence and abuse.

“Humans can be abused over and over again,” Baucus said.

MacDonald, the sponsor of SB 147, said it will give prosecutors the tools they need to charge traffickers and abusers, without further criminalization of victims. The senator said she’s honored to carry this legislation.

“It’s one of the reasons you run for office, to make this kind of difference,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald said the prolific nature of this crime is indicative of government failure to provide social safety nets for those who are born into abusive and violent environments. She said better funding for public education and the state’s child and family protection division could also help mitigate the risks for human trafficking.

Regulations on Massage Parlors

Another bill aims to enhance regulation of massage parlors and complements the efforts of McDonald's proposal.

One section of SB 147 would criminalize any sexual activity in massage parlors that offer so-called “happy ending” massages and which can sometimes serve as fronts for human trafficking rings.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is carrying House Bill 749, to address the same issue. He said restaurants have stricter inspection and licensing requirements than massage parlors, even though some massage parlors -- particularly the ones that offer sexual services --  are much more likely to harbor criminal activity.

The bill would require massage parlors to conspicuously display the license of each massage therapist, and would require law enforcement to inspect any massage business during operating hours to ensure compliance.

“On the criminal side, it can be hard to prosecute, but it makes sense to regulate and shut down a business that’s engaging in illegal activity,” Zolnikov said.

The bill would also allocate more than $500,000 from the state’s general fund to establish a two-person human trafficking team. Currently, the state only has one full-time law enforcement officer dedicated to human trafficking.

“This country is founded on life liberty and the pursuit happiness, and these (victims) have none of that,” Zolnikov said.

HB 749 passed the House 94-5 and will move to the Senate for more debate.

When Prevention and Regulation Fail

There are cases of sexual abuse that slip through the cracks, partially because they can be hard to prosecute, but also because sometimes victims aren’t able to or don’t report crimes right away. Prosecutors are limited in time when it comes to charging perpetrators with sexual abuse, which creates another loophole for abusers to walk free.

Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, is an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and is carrying House Bill 640. It’s not so much directed toward human trafficking, but is similar in its pursuit to prosecute abusers.

Morigeau said research shows some victims of childhood sexual abuse don’t report abuse for decades, and that Montana law should account for that.

“I’m hopeful this can get us to a place that reflects our understanding of trauma and delayed reporting,” Morigeau said.

An example of this is the case of James “Doc” Jensen, a former athletic trainer in Miles City who was accused of sexual abuse in the fall of 2018 by students he worked with in the 1970s all the way through 1998. Many of those victims are not be able to press criminal charges because of statute of limitations.

HB 640 would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal sex abuse cases, and extend the statute of limitations for civil suits brought by victims.

Jensen’s daughter, Kristen Newby, spoke in a Senate hearing in support of Morigeau’s bill last week. She said her father was able to take advantage of students for decades without getting caught.

“That case is every reason why that bill is so important,” Newby said.

The bill also includes some mandatory reporting requirements, which advocacy groups opposed during the same hearing. Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said she would bring amendments for that section. Sands said victims need safe places to discuss their abuse without the pressure of mandatory reporting to law enforcement.

HB 640 has earned bipartisan support and passed the House 96-2.

For professionals like detective Baker working in the field, creating awareness and dispeling stigmas about human trafficking and sex abuse is a top priority. And when that doesn’t cut it, Baker wants the law to be clear and harsh on this criminal industry.

“I would love Montana to have such strict laws that these traffickers would avoid Montana,” Baker said.

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu.

This story was posted on fairfieldsuntimes.com