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Amid push to fight sex trafficking, Alaska has had few arrests for last 3 recorded years

Amid push to fight sex trafficking, Alaska has had few arrests for last 3 recorded years
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 8:30 AM AKST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2022 at 1:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Fighting sex trafficking is the focus of a trio of bills introduced by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday, in an effort to start his People First Initiative to fighting crime and other social ills in Alaska. The bills would more specifically define sex trafficking, increase the crimes’ classifications on the sentencing scale, and allow victims of sex trafficking to expunge their records.

The initiative focuses on sex trafficking as a growing problem in Alaska, but when Alaska’s News Source looked into the number of arrests made by local and state law enforcement for the crime over the last few years, there were very few.

The governor’s bills come on the heels of an operation by Alaska State Troopers that arrested 22 potential customers of prostitutes — in this case, an undercover Alaska State Trooper — and the 2021 resolution of three federal cases of sex trafficking in Alaska. Two of those men were convicted of trafficking teen runaways and, in one case, giving a 15-year-old girl so much drugs that she couldn’t remember some of her trafficking experiences.

But there’s an important distinction, advocates and law enforcement officials say, between sex trafficking, and the sex industry.

“When people say it’s sex trafficking they’re really thinking about the overall sex industry, to include prostitution. But not all prostitution is sex trafficking,” said Alaska State Trooper Capt. Andrew Gorn, with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.

The three elements that make up sex trafficking are force, fraud or coercion. Causing a minor to perform commercial sex acts, no matter the circumstances, is also considered sex trafficking, according to federal Uniform Crime Reporting standards.

Earlier this year, Alaska’s News Source talked with advocates at Covenant House Alaska, a safe haven for teens and young adults with no place to turn.

“We have seen an influx of traffickers coming up from the Lower 48 because it’s an untapped resource of people,” said Heather Hagelberger, who tracks sex and labor trafficking among Covenant House’s youth. Tristan Grant, one of the traffickers convicted and sentenced in 2022, fits that description, having moved to Alaska from another state, according to court documents.

With so many eyes on alert for sex trafficking in Alaska, Alaska’s News Source looked into the three recent federal cases, and at statistics for the past three years. The state’s crime reports, which include state and local crime statistics in Alaska, show zero arrests for sex trafficking in the years of 2018, 2019 and 2020. The report for 2021 is not available yet.

A federal database showing arrests for human trafficking crimes against a person also shows no arrests during those years at the federal level. However, FBI Supervisory Special Agent William Walton told Alaska’s News Source that the data for that interface has not been fully imported. Two of the cases that were sentenced in 2021, and at least one other, were filed in 2019, Alaska’s News Source found. Complete data for sex trafficking arrests by federal agencies from those years were not available at the time of publication.

Federal crime data for 2018 and 2019 show that there were two and seven arrests for human trafficking in the FBI’s Anchorage field office, for nine total arrests, including sex and labor trafficking. A report for 2020 is not yet available.

Twelve cases of sex trafficking were reported to state and local authorities in those three years, and all were found to be credible reports. Three were “cleared” according to the Uniform Crime Reporting records, which can mean a number of things, including that a case was prosecuted, witnesses wouldn’t cooperate, or a suspect died, or was otherwise taken off the streets.

Cases forwarded to federal law enforcement agencies are included in that count.

Alaska State Trooper Capt. Andrew Gorn, with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, says the operation to net customers of a fictitious prostitute was a successful one.

“Prostitution isn’t a victimless crime,” Gorn told Alaska’s News Source. “... Those acts are closely correlated and tied with other criminal activities in the state of Alaska. Sex trafficking, human trafficking, drugs, assault, robbery and other crimes.”

Maxine Doogan, an advocate for sex workers, says law enforcement officers — and lawmakers — should focus on other parts of the problem of sex trafficking than adults soliciting sex from other consenting adults.

“It’s not in the interest of the public safety to arrest our customers,” she told Alaska’s News Source.

Customers of trafficking victims are often the ones who call for help to get a victim out of a trafficking situation. While Alaska law has implemented immunity for sex workers who report serious crimes, the same has not been done for their customers. Instead, Doogan says, they call activists like herself.

“That customer provides the lifeline, oftentimes, for that person to be able to make their escape or their exit,” Doogan said. “Customers often provide rides to people, provide them money, cellphones, to be able to help them on to their next right thing in life.”

Doogan, an advocate with Community United for Safety and Protection, a group of current and former sex workers, including victims of sex trafficking, said she and others believe prostitution should be decriminalized, and consenting adults should not be prosecuted. The fear of a criminal charge prevents customers of sex workers from reporting instances of trafficking, she says. Doogan says those charged with buying sex are accused of “nothing but being adults and making adult decisions for themselves, which should all be a constitutionally protected activity, which we think it is under (Alaska’s) privacy clause.”

Born and raised in Alaska, Doogan said she began her career in the mid-1980s as a sex worker in Anchorage, in a business that was tolerated by the local authorities, and even inspected for building safety.

“I had training, you know, I worked with a group of women. I worked in a really nice place,” Doogan said. “... I had a lot of agency to be able to negotiate for my own labor and my own safe work conditions, as best as I was able to, with an established clientele.”

She said sex trafficking laws cast a broad net, and that when young women and teens willingly participate in the sex industry, those who help them stay safe can be cast as criminals.

“Prostitution is the social safety net in the United States,” Doogan said, “because the social safety net has got big gaping holes in it that youth often fall through, and it’s not our fault. And we shouldn’t be criminalized for it.”

“We need to be treated like there’s equal protection under the law.”

As long as prostitution is criminalized, Doogan says, lawmakers are keeping sex workers’ sense of agency and their ability to turn away business, and report bad actors, illegal.

“So we want those criminalization of prostitution laws repealed,” she said.

While that doesn’t appear to be in the cards anytime soon, the governor’s introduced bills would allow a victim of sex trafficking to expunge his or her criminal record of sex trafficking-related crimes, and they would be notified when their trafficker has a bail hearing, or changes their name. The proposed bill would also increase the level of offense of sex trafficking crimes, making first-degree trafficking an unclassified felony, rather than a class A felony, and increasing lower degrees in step.

Gorn, with the Alaska State Troopers, said that while prostitution in Alaska is illegal, Troopers work to get those in bad situations into a better one.

“If we contact somebody through our investigations working in the sex industry who wants help, Alaska State Troopers absolutely do our best to connect them with the resources that can provide them help,” he told Alaska’s News Source.

If you or someone you know is in a labor or sex trafficking situation, the National Human Trafficking Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It can be reached at 1 (888) 373-7888, or by text at 233733, just send the word “HELP” or “INFO.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional federal data on human trafficking from the FBI.

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