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Scarborough lawmaker's campaign against human trafficking advances

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Scarborough lawmaker's campaign against human trafficking advances

SCARBOROUGH — Getting a bill to help stop human trafficking consideration in the Legislature took a lot of work for Republican state Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough.

If the bill to allow victims of human trafficking to expunge convictions of nonviolent crimes becomes law, she said it will only mark an initial step on the path of recognition for an often unconsidered problem.

"I don't think there are a ton of these cases, but in my opinion and those I talk to, if there is one person being held back because of this, it is not fair," Volk said Tuesday.

The law, which Volk said would require some kind of proof a victim had been involved in prostitution or other crimes against their will, would boost the state's standing in the eyes of the nonprofit Polaris Project, which is dedicated to ending human trafficking.

“This was their number one priority when I called them,” Volk said, explaining why she introduced the bill that seemed destined to sit idle until state Democrats reversed course last week and added it to the second half of the 126th session of the Legislature.

The Polaris Project ranks Maine in its second tier of states combating human trafficking, but second place is no prize in the 10-category assessment. The five points awarded to Maine rank ahead of six other states, but well behind Washington and New Jersey, which scored 12 points each.

The categories include legal provisions banning sex and labor trafficking, asset forfeitures for offenders, lower burdens of proof for charges for trafficking minors and access to civil damages against traffickers.

Maine laws are in place for those provisions, but expunging or vacating convictions related to trafficking, creating trafficking task forces, safe houses for victims and compensation funds for victims are additional steps Volk supports.

The Polaris Project helped awaken her to the problem about two years ago, Volk said, but her work with Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Catholic Charities have widened her view as to how pervasive the effects of human trafficking may be.

“My guess is that Maine may be a port, or a pass-through,” she said. “I think it is more likely people are trafficked through the state than stay in the state."

Human trafficking became a local issue when 22-year-old Megan Waterman of Scarborough disappeared on Long Island, N.Y., on June 5, 2010. Waterman had been working as an escort using online ads.

She traveled to New York with Brooklyn native Akeem Cruz, who was living in the Portland area. Her remains were found on a Long Island beach in December 2010 and not positively identified by police until January 2012.

Last January, Cruz was sentenced to three years in prison for setting up Waterman's rendezvous with a customer before she disappeared.

Volk said Cruz, who has also been convicted of drug trafficking, may have preferred promoting prostitution to selling illegal drugs.

"It can become easier to make money from (women), as opposed to a drug that you have to continually acquire,” she said.

Increasing penalties for promoting prostitution could help fund compensation for victims, Volk said, but stretched resources throughout the state could make other efforts a struggle.

She suggested law enforcement agencies could train selected officers as resources to help identify victims and perpetrators of trafficking. The officers leading domestic violence units would be well suited because trafficking and abuse can occur simultaneously, she said.

Volk's bill will likely be heard by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, where Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, is a co-chairman.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.