LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Tougher fines and even arrests for “johns” who hire prostitutes had lawmakers taking on some hard questions on Friday in Carson City.
“We have the Super Bowl coming next year to Las Vegas. And we have a theme — which I hate — ‘Whatever Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.’ And that, to me, is an invitation that people believe they can come to our town, abuse our girls, bring other people in and abuse them,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas). “And it’s cool, because, ‘Whatever Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,’ I have a problem with it.”
The Nevada Assembly Judiciary Committee was hearing testimony on Assembly Bill 145 (AB145) and two other bills on sex trafficking. On AB145, the opinions in the room were overwhelmingly in favor of doing more to put the spotlight on johns — typically, middle-aged white men, according to testimony from Regan Comis, Director of Government Affairs at R&R Partners.
As discussion turned to a provision of AB145 that gives police the option of arresting johns, the appetite for more severe punishment was clear.
“I believe, personally, if we are going to be serious about this, it should not be a ‘maybe’ about arrests,” Summers-Armstrong said.
Others jumped in, agreeing. The room was full of victims’ advocates who had come to testify in favor of the small steps contained in AB145. And they were in the mood to take giant leaps instead. Many in attendance were still fired up by a personal account of a former Las Vegas sex worker who brought a clear message: prostitution is not a victimless crime.
With emotions still high, Republican Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen said the unthinkable: “One way we could have consistency in the state, let’s just ban legal prostitution. But I know that’s a highly controversial subject.”
Hansen represents the northwest corner of the state including rural Washoe County, all of Humboldt, Pershing and Lander counties and parts of Elko and Eureka counties.
And while that discussion stopped as quickly as it started, there was a lot of talk about how to get the message out before the Super Bowl actually arrives.
Assemblywoman Lesley E. Cohen, a Clark County Democrat, asked about the need to publicize the laws using methods like advertising on bus benches, billboards and at the airport.
“It’s been decades of this mantra,” Brittney Miller, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee said. “It’s Vegas and so because we do have legalized prostitution here in the state, that adds to more confusion. They don’t know where the lines are.”
The slogan comes from a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority publicity campaign that the Nevada Legislature doesn’t control.
The FBI has identified Las Vegas as one of the 13 high-intensity child trafficking areas, Comis said.
Another piece of legislation that seeks tougher sentences for sex trafficking (living from the earnings of a prostitute) met some opposition. AB157 would carry tougher sentences when the victim is a minor.
But Erica Roth of the Washoe County Public Defender’s Office testified that the bill would have unintended consequences for victims. She said the effect of “stacking charges” has the potential to punish victims of sex trafficking.
“It is a crime — it is a Category A felony to traffic a child. That conduct is covered. We cannot make that penalty any higher,” Roth said.
“There are often multiple victims who are controlled by the same pimp. I have seen women brought in — in chains — to courtrooms after being prosecuted for living off the earnings of a prostitute,” Roth said. Those victims are overwhelmingly women of color, Roth said.