PHOENIX - To Cindy McCain, co-chair of a task force Gov. Jan Brewer assembled to address human trafficking, one way to combat the problem is treating women and girls lured into the sex trade as victims.
"They're not prostitutes, they're victims, and it's our job to help change the language," she said.
McCain addressed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday before it unanimously endorsed wide-ranging legislation targeting sex trafficking, child prostitution and trafficking individuals for forced labor or services, including adding those offenses to the definition of racketeering under state law.
HB 2454, authored by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, incorporates recommendations from Brewer's task force. Among other provisions, it targets those who recruit victims from shelters serving runaways, foster children, homeless people or victims of trafficking, domestic violence or sex assault. It carries increased penalties if a victim is age 15 to 17.
It also would establish being a victim of sex trafficking as a defense in child prostitution cases.
"We're going after the trafficker really hard with this bill, and we're also dealing with our victims," McCain said.
Carolyn Jones, who said she was lured into prostituting herself as a teenager and now works with StreetLightUSA, an organization that advocates for victims of child prostitution, told the committee the bill would make it clear that she was a victim.
"To me the passing of this bill means that it was not OK for me as a 15-year-old girl on the streets of Phoenix to be prostituted," she said.
Rep. Lupe Chavira Contreras, D-Cashion, choked up as he explained his vote in favor of the bill, noting that he has two daughters.
"We do have to worry as parents," he said. "And just thinking that that could ever happen to not just me, to any one of us up here that have children, to any of my family members, it's not right."
"We can do better here," said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, another committee member. "And we can craft laws which make it unprofitable to be in the business of statutory rape."
Rep. Martín J. Quezada, D-Phoenix, said he was troubled that bill doesn't treat minors in child prostitution cases as victims and instead offers them a defense when they enter the criminal justice system.
"Any time a minor is engaged in sex trafficking, they're a victim," he said.
Farnsworth said the bill must balance constitutional protections with the need for justice.
"I think we have struck a very positive and healthy balance in this bill," he said.
While legislation targeting human trafficking failed last year, McCain said she is an "eternal optimist."
"I just really believe now that we have something that is comprehensive and fortified in front of the Legislature that they'll decide to pass it," she said.