LEWISTON — When police arrested seven women for engaging in prostitution one night last week, they took them to the police station, not the county jail.
Officers asked each woman why she was on the street, whether someone had been compelling her to get cash for sex, then sent them to meet with an advocate who offered shelter and snacks. The women, who ranged in age from 22 to 56, left the station on their own recognizance.
The treatment was starkly different from the men arrested the last few weeks downtown for allegedly engaging prostitutes or, in these cases, undercover agents posing as sex workers. They were booked at Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn, their faces and names publicized by police.
“We’re changing our approach,” Police Chief Brian O’Malley told the Sun Journal. “We’re going after the sex traffickers as opposed to just publicizing the prostitution arrests and publicizing these women’s names.”
It’s all part of a larger, two-pronged effort to put an end to prostitution in certain problem areas of the city’s downtown: trying to curb demand while at the same time targeting sex traffickers who coerce women through drugs and violence to solicit sex.
Prior to this new approach, residents had complained about sex workers on neighborhood streets, engaging in sex acts in public, where children were walking home from school. Business complained about prostitution outside their stores.
“Obviously, if people stopped buying people, people wouldn’t sell people,” Assistant District Attorney Nathan Walsh said Friday. His office, like state law, has shifted its view over recent years to see sex workers as victims, often compelled to sell their bodies for cash to feed a drug habit fueled by sex traffickers. In fact, Walsh said, in the majority of cases, these women may have an affirmative defense to the Class E misdemeanor crime of engaging in prostitution.
Maine law says anyone compelled to engage in sex for money isn’t guilty. Compulsion includes withholding or threatening to withhold a scheduled drug or alcohol from someone who is dependent on those substances.
“So, if the girl out on the street, her drug dealer (or) her supply of heroin is coming from one specific person and that person says: ‘You’re not going to get heroin unless you go out and make money on the street and bring it back to me,’ then that would be an affirmative defense,” Walsh said.
Someone also can be compelled to engage in prostitution in order to repay a debt. If she is fearful that if she doesn’t engage in prostitution, she or someone else will be harmed or property will be damaged, that qualifies as an affirmative defense, he said.
The women who were arrested Wednesday weren’t taken to jail because state law says the crime of engaging in prostitution isn’t punishable by jail time. For that reason, it wouldn’t be lawful to incarcerate a woman charged with a crime that only is punishable by a fine, Walsh said.
“So, looking at that, we feel as though if they go to jail after arrest, the time they spent (in jail,) that criminal sanction of incarceration, in keeping with the spirit of the law, is not an appropriate sentence,” he said.
If someone has been convicted of that crime within a two-year period, though, jail time is possible, he said. And if a woman were charged with that crime as a first offense and were to violate conditions of her bail, she could be charged with a crime that includes jail time, he said.
Conditions of bail include not being on certain streets, Walsh said.
“It’s a very fine line that we have to walk here,” Walsh said of his office’s approach. “Obviously, the focus is going to be on trafficking. So, we’re talking about the commercial sexual exploitation of some of the most vulnerable members of the community.”
Walsh said he understands the perception on the street.
“That’s right at the heart of what we’re trying to do and why it’s such a political issue in the community, too,” he said. “Ethically, as prosecutors, we have a duty to make sure that what we’re doing is in the interest of justice. And you’ve got these folks here who very well may be presenting as having committed a criminal offense, but if there was further investigation behind it, you may say, ‘Holy smokes!’ There’s a much bigger fish behind this that’s at play here.”
An investigation into the seven women is ongoing to determine whether they were trafficked into performing sex acts, he said.
Last week when they were brought to the police station, each of the women, who live in the Twin Cities or are transients, were also offered substance abuse treatment along with myriad other services for victims of sexual assault and abuse.
The women signed bail documents detailing the conditions of their release before they were allowed to leave on their personal recognizance.
Most people engaging in prostitution have a history of trauma, Walsh said, either sexual abuse as children or other abuse that has led to substance abuse.
“What we’re seeing is the symptom of a larger issue of what’s going on with poverty, trauma, possible history of sexual abuse, substance abuse disorder,” he said. “The way to compassionately address that and do justice and protect the community is what we’re trying to do.”
While law enforcement has successfully cracked down on online sex trafficking, effectively eliminating that venue for many patrons, word has spread that certain areas in downtown Lewiston were destination points for “Johns,” sparking a growing demand, Walsh said.
Since the city’s sting operation though, demand has dropped significantly, he said, signaling at least partial success.
“Lewiston police have been fantastic,” Walsh said, working with his office to curb demand through sting operations. In addition to law enforcement, business leaders have worked to help solve the problem, he said.
Chief O’Malley has said sting operations of “Johns” will be ongoing in this city.
As for the women who are trafficked into sex work, support is available, said Hailey Virusso, program manager at Safe Voices’ Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Safe House.
In fact, a new six-bed facility, made possible in collaboration with Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, will provide a trauma-informed framework for emergency sheltering, building off of its current services, she said.
These groups work to establish rapport with women who have been trafficked, offering services that often include safety planning, advocacy and support, substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, basic necessities and housing, she said.
In 2017, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Maine Coalition Against Domestic Violence served between 200-300 survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation in Maine, Virusso said.
“As a community, we should be focusing our energy on helping those being exploited and trafficked as they are being victimized within our community, and it is our job to keep one another safe,” she said.