From left: Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), and Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) testify before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Thursday in support of a bill that bars charging minors with prostitution and instead provides resources to them as sex trafficking survivors. (Screenshot via WisconsinEye)
From left: Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), and Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) testify before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Thursday in support of a bill that bars charging minors with prostitution and instead provides resources to them as sex trafficking survivors. (Screenshot via WisconsinEye)

Sponsors are confident the bipartisan proposal, which would expand protections for child sex trafficking victims, will win enough votes to become law.

Advocates for a bipartisan “Safe Harbor” bill, which would protect minors participating in prostitution and treat them as sex-trafficking victims, hope that with the support of anti-trafficking organizations and law enforcement, the bill will pass in Wisconsin. 

Current Wisconsin law states that someone under 18 may be prosecuted for prostitution despite the fact that Wisconsin law also states that minors cannot legally give consent, as Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) pointed out during the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety hearing on Thursday. 

In fact, Johnson said that in conversation with people who had been trafficked as minors, she learned that the threat of prosecution for prostitution is used by traffickers to frighten and control their victims by telling them, “the police will only arrest you.” 

“​​There’s usually no direct consequence for the pimps but there are for the victims,” Johnson said.

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Similar bills have passed in Washington, DC, and 29 states, including Minnesota. The Minnesota bill passed in 2011 and provides protections and services for young people up to 24 years of age. A 2014 report found that from 2012 to 2013, the number of convictions for sex traffickers doubled from 31 to 63. 

The bill has enthusiastic support from both sides of the aisle; Johnson, along with her colleagues Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) testified in favor of the bill, which was supported by former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and current Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul. Last session, it passed in the Senate but did not come up for a vote in the Assembly, which supporters said was because of a misunderstanding about what the bill would do. 

“This bill does not legalize prostitution,” Johnson said. “[Prostitution] is illegal, and will remain so. This bill only prevents child victims from being prosecuted for prostitution.”

A wide range of organizations across the state have voiced their support for the bill, including Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the children and law section of the State Bar, and the Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. 

As trafficking awareness continues to spread, supporters, including Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety committee, are optimistic that it will pass this time around. 

“It’s just walking the halls and making sure everybody understands this thing,” Wanggaard said.