AUGUSTA — With strong backing from groups as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the Maine Women’s Lobby, legislators are weighing whether to block police and prosecutors from charging anyone under 18 years of age with engaging in prostitution.

“Minors who are charged with prostitution are not criminals but rather victims themselves,” said Oami Amarasingham, the advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

During a legislative hearing this week on a bill by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, lawmakers heard universal sympathy for minors caught in the web of commercial sex trafficking. But not everyone agreed that barring criminal charges is the best approach to help.

Christine Thibeault, an assistant district attorney in Cumberland County, told the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety that “preventing juveniles from being charged with engaging in prostitution may unintentionally have the opposite effect by eliminating any meaningful opportunity for intervention.”

“Attorneys, judges and other professionals working in Maine’s juvenile justice system strive to ensure that juvenile offenders, regardless of the offense committed, receive educational, therapeutic and family support services that will help them succeed as adults,” she said.

But most of the testimony supported Volk’s position that “we should concern ourselves with prosecuting the pimps and johns, not teenagers who have been trapped in this lifestyle.”

Suzanne Lafreniere, director of the Office of Public Policy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said the church favors the proposal as part of its mission to put “moral and ethical considerations” at the root of society’s decision-making.

She pointed out that Pope Francis has “called upon governments and all people of goodwill to unite in a global effort to free victims of trafficking and prostitution.”

Lafreniere said, too, that “we need to make sure victims of crimes have access to the services they need to heal” and have a full life.

Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said that federal law recognizes the sexual trafficking of minors “can involve circumstances that would make it appear to the untrained eye that the minor is exercising agency rather than being victimized.”

“This bill is an attempt to reconcile what we know now and are continuing to learn about minor victims and human trafficking: that coercion and exploitation can take many forms, but are always present when minors are involved in commercial sex,” Townsend said.

She said that law enforcement, prosecutors and trafficking experts “have ensured that minor victims of trafficking are identified and appropriately connected with services rather than charged and penalized,” but the law still reflects “the misunderstanding that we should treat minors engaged in commercial sex in the same fashion that we treat adults who have control over their decisions and circumstances.”

“Maine law should better reflect our practices, which have evolved out of research and experience,” Townsend said.

Destie Hohman Sprague of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault said her group has heard of “very few instances” of minors charged with prostitution in Maine. But, she said, it’s important the law guarantees “the crime of engaging in prostitution cannot be applied to children.”

“This is particularly important because we know that when minors are engaged in commercial sex, the overwhelming majority of the time there are significant vulnerabilities at play, including experiencing childhood sexual abuse, mental health concerns, family instability and abuse, and the impacts of poverty, racism and homophobia,” Sprague said.

“These are the children in our community who need to be supported, not criminalized,” she said.

The committee plans to discuss the bill at a work session Wednesday.

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