If the number of the bill sounds familiar, lawmakers say it’s an accident. Senate Bill 21 — the number of a highly controversial oil tax reform bill that cleared the Legislature two years ago — is the same number for a sex trafficking bill this session.

Other than a number, both have another thing in common: they generate debate.

SB 21 had its first hearing in the Senate judiciary committee Monday afternoon. Sen. Berta Gardner, who introduced the legislation, told lawmakers the bill addresses a real problem — an alarming number of women and children in Alaska who are being exploited by sex traffickers.

According to the FBI, there have been seven cases in which sex traffickers were prosecuted. Out of those, they said more than 100 victims were forced into prostitution. Experts believe these numbers only scratch the surface.

“Sex trafficking, like other crimes like violence against women and sexual assault, is at epidemic levels in Alaska,” said Katie Bruggeman, a legislative aide for Gardner.

Almost everyone at the hearing seemed to agree something needs to be done, but what?

Gardner’s bill uses what’s known as an “affirmative defense,” in which those who are charged can avoid prosecution if they can prove they were forced into prostitution.

Several witnesses from outside Alaska testified by telephone to protest SB 21’s affirmative defense, including Bella Robinson of Rhode Island, who told the committee she was a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 17.

“Rhode Island does not require anyone to prove they are a victim,” Robinson said. “I think it’s kind of insulting to say victims need to prove this.”

A Fairbanks woman, who also said she was coerced to work in the sex trade, argued against the bill.

Terra Burns is currently a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and working on her thesis on sex trafficking in Alaska. Burns is living out of a camper in Juneau so she can fight against SB 21. In recent weeks, she’s been visiting with individual lawmakers to make her case.

“I think the affirmative defense is not a workable solution for victims of sex trafficking,” Burns told the committee. She also believes those forced into prostitution shouldn’t have to prove their innocence.

“Victims of sex trafficking in Alaska need protection, not just a remedy that is very small, that comes at the end of this process,” Burns said.

Burns is an advocate for legalizing prostitution, which SB 21 does not attempt to do.

Some like Sen. Peter Micciche, a Republican from Soldotna, noted there was no funding attached to the bill and questioned whether victims would actually come forward if there was nothing to guarantee their safety.

“I’m hugely supportive of your mission of the bill,” said Micciche to Gardner. “I just want to make sure we provide victims with the tools to truly have a way out of their situation.”

“This committee may well find a better option,” said Gardner in response. “I’d probably be grateful if you have a better solution we can get through.”

A similar bill cleared the Senate last year but stalled in the House rules committee, the last stop to a vote on the House floor.

Gardner told the committee she wanted to keep the bill simple this session to make sure it wins support. She said there was no way a bill would pass in the current fiscal climate if it costs the state more money.

“My objective is to at least put this out there, so a victim can say, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m going to go to the police and get some help,’” said Gardner, who wonders whether the affirmative defense would actually be used. “It’s a start and I hope it would change the conversation.”

Gardner’s bill has support from churches and other groups fighting sex trafficking.

“Senate Bill 21 is working towards compassion, and now it’s the job of legislators to step up and reflect that,” said Melissa Engel, a Juneau youth pastor. “This is just one baby step in fighting sex trafficking, but it’s a crucial one.”

But those who advocate for prostitutes, whether forced to work in the sex trade or otherwise, say SB 21 is a step backwards and falls short of addressing the problem in a meaningful way.

The challenge ahead for everyone involved in this debate might well be the trap of letting the perfect get in the way of the good.

“We’re all in this together,” Sen. John Coghill reminded the committee about the desire to help victims of sex trafficking. “This is at least one tool for them to get a way out.”

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