LINCOLN — Rachel Pointer was 6 years old when a neighbor’s boyfriend sold her for sex.
The exploitation began in her Omaha neighborhood and lasted a decade as she was victimized across the city.
For years, Pointer didn’t understand what was happening. She turned to drugs and alcohol and on three occasions tried to end her life.
Pointer said the people who sold and purchased her for sex as a child never faced charges of any kind. If they had, she told a legislative committee Thursday, they would have spent little to no time behind bars.
That’s why she supports a proposal that would raise the penalties for sex traffickers and buyers of trafficking victims.
“We owe it to the little child who is being exploited right now in our great state of Nebraska to raise the bar,” said Pointer, who today is a case manager at a residential program for teenage boys in Omaha.
Legislative Bill 289 aims to send a strong message to those forcing people into prostitution that Nebraska will no longer tolerate such actions, and criminal punishments will reflect that, said the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.
The result would mean convicted traffickers could be sentenced to at least a year in prison, and in cases where a minor younger than 16 is trafficked or a minor is trafficked with the use of force, up to life in prison.
People convicted of that crime now face no minimum penalty and a maximum of 20 years in prison. Under the bill, the minimum sentence would be 20 years in prison.
Crimes of enticing someone, trafficking an adult and soliciting a trafficked adult also have no minimum penalty now. LB 289 would require those crimes to carry a minimum of a year and a maximum of 50 years in prison.
Sex trafficking a minor would have a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 50 years in prison. Meanwhile, trafficking an adult with threat or force would carry a minimum of three years and maximum of 50 years in prison.
Pansing Brooks said the changes are necessary because most people convicted of trafficking a person currently receive light sentences, including probation for people guilty of trafficking minors.
“When you consider the horrors of this crime, probation is nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” she said.
Pansing Brooks emphasized that sex trafficking is thriving in Nebraska.
Each month, 900 people are sold for sex, often more than once, in Nebraska via Backpage, a classified advertising website that features ads for escorts, according to a new report by the Human Trafficking Initiative, which is supported by the Women’s Fund of Omaha and funded by the Sherwood Foundation.
The state’s market for commercial sex is skewed toward children and minorities, said Crysta Price, a researcher at Creighton University and co-director of the Human Trafficking Initiative.
One in five people are advertised for sex online with phrases like “just hit 18” and “fresh meat,” she said. And while African-Americans represent only 5 percent of the state’s population, they make up half of all individuals sold for sex in the state.
The bill builds upon legislation passed last year that granted victims of sex trafficking legal immunity from prostitution charges. That bill also was sponsored by Pansing Brooks.
About 20 people on Thursday voiced their support for the measure before the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. They included victims of sex trafficking, victim advocates, religious organizations, representatives from the medical and law enforcement communities, and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
The Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association was the lone opponent. While increasing penalties sends a message, it does not necessarily address the problem or help detect crimes and apprehend offenders, said Spike Eickholt, who represents the association.
He noted that one of the proposed penalty increases for sex trafficking carries a tougher sentence than that faced by people convicted of manslaughter and vehicular homicide. For example, someone convicted of manslaughter faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and no minimum sentence.
“We would argue that raising that proportional bar is bad policy,” Eickholt said.
Dave LeMoine, a retired FBI agent who investigated sex trafficking crimes in Montana, said such crimes virtually stopped after state lawmakers substantially increased penalties there.
LeMoine, who has lived in Nebraska for about a decade, said the state needs to follow suit in protecting people who are victims “in the truest sense of the word.” Out of 70 sex trafficking victims LeMoine interviewed, just two were not victims of sex abuse as children, he said.
“They desensitize from sex, and they run away from home when they’re 14 to get away from it,” he said. “They run into the arms of these pimps, who are very skillful at convincing them that they love them and they’re going to be just like Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’ and live happily ever after. Nothing could be further from the truth.”