LITTLE ROCK — A bill to toughen Arkansas’ human trafficking law and offer new protections to victims received a House committee’s endorsement Tuesday.
House Bill 1203 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, cleared the House Judiciary Committee in a voice vote and advances to the House.
The bill would expand the definition of human trafficking and make it a Class Y felony punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison. Under current law, the offense is a Class A felony punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.
The measure also would allow victims to collect restitution; allow the attorney general to create a task force on human trafficking; allow a person accused of prostitution to claim as a defense that the prostitution was the result of being a victim of human trafficking; and make it a felony for a person to knowingly patronize a prostitute who is a human trafficking victim.
The committee heard testimony from two women who said they were forced into prostitution as teenagers, Louise Allison of Little Rock and Kathy Bryan of Heber Springs. Allison was victimized in Texas and Bryan in Virginia.
"I was trafficked from the age of 14 to 16," said Allison, now of Partners Against Trafficking Humans, or PATH. "I was bought and sold. I was raped, beat, drugged and threatened. From the first incident I was filled with fear and shame, and that eventually was replaced with emotionless, robotic existence. I went where I was told to go and I did what I was told to do."
Allison said she was arrested several times and labeled as a prostitute, a label she said victims should not have to bear for something they were forced to do.
Bryan said the person who forced her into prostitution made her think he was her boyfriend before luring her to a house where she was raped repeatedly for hours to break her will.
"They win your trust, they look for vulnerabilities, and then before you know it, it turns," she said.
Meeks said he worked on the bill with other legislators and the attorney general’s office. He said other legislators have a bill in the works that would allow certain convictions, such as prostitution, to be vacated to help the victims of human trafficking and another bill that would allow the state Department of Human Services to consider opening shelters across the state to help victims of human trafficking.
"We’re excited and ready to take the next step and see it pass in the Senate," Meeks said after the hearing.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, has filed a matching Senate version of Meeks’ bill. That bill has not yet been presented in committee.