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Oregon lawmakers target child sex trafficking

SALEM — People who buy children for sex and the criminals who sell them would face tougher penalties under bills considered Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature is considering several bills intended to better protect children from being lured or coerced into sex trafficking.

Senate Bill 673 and a partner bill in the House would impose a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison or $250,000 fine on people who solicit sex from children. Under a law passed in 2011, soliciting sex from a minor carries a maximum of one year in prison or a $20,000 fine.

Glen "J.R." Ujifusa, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, said Tuesday prosecutors need more tools to punish those who pay for sex with minors.

He said such people are not deterred by a hefty fine because they can generally afford to pay it off.

"A felony ... is more fitting of the actions these men are participating in," Ujifusa said.

Another bill considered Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee would toughen existing laws against criminals involved in child trafficking.

Three survivors of sex trafficking testified at the hearing, at the behest of advocacy groups.

One young woman, who did not want to be identified, said she was forced into prostitution at age 9, and that when she was a teenager supposed boyfriends sold her for sex. Some at the hearing wept as she told her story.

"I can tell you that all of those johns that ever rented me, it wasn't their first time," she told lawmakers. "It was never their first time."

Another victim who testified is Rebecca Bender, who has written a book about how she was coerced into prostitution at age 18 and speaks in public to call for better protection of children from sexual predators.

"When people say that this horrific epidemic doesn't happen in our small communities, horror fills my heart," Bender said. "Because I can imagine walking among you with my trafficker right next to me, and the fear that gripped me on the inside to just rather go with him than to be so humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed and hurt. This is the typical story of what happens in America."

She told lawmakers that trafficked minors must be seen as victims not as prostitutes, a view that was repeated throughout the hearing.

"Thirteen-year-old girls don't drive themselves up and down the I-5," she said.

Joel Shapiro of Shared Hope International, an advocacy group that fights sex trafficking and is supporting the bills, said going after pimps and johns has been made more difficult because so much of the illicit business has gone from the streets to online.

"The Internet has made the demand side more convenient," he said. "Now it's not so much on the streets."

At the hearing, police officers read messages posted on a website where men looking to buy sex from minors describe the victims they want to order and share advice to avoid getting caught.

The next step for the bills, which still could be amended, will be committee votes. They are very early in the legislative process and face several hurdles before they could become law.