BOISE — Human trafficking is often a hidden crime in rural southern Idaho. But advocates hope a potential new law could bring some visibility.
Last week, Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa) introduced two bills aimed at curbing sex trafficking across the state. One would make first-time solicitation of a prostitute — currently a misdemeanor — into a felony charge. The other would allow human trafficking charges to apply for the trafficking of just one person.
A glance at court records from last year shows that both human trafficking- and prostitution-related charges are rare in Twin Falls County. There were zero solicitation charges in 2017, and just one charge for prostitution. The county hasn’t filed any human trafficking charges in recent decades, Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs said.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, those who work in the criminal justice system say. Sex trafficking is a difficult crime to detect and even harder to investigate and prosecute. And it’s more common in south-central Idaho than you might think.
In the past six months alone, at least three underage girls from the Magic Valley area have sought services offered by INsideOUT, a Boise area-based advocacy organization that helps trafficking victims, said founder Dawn Maglish.
“And those are only girls that were identified and shared,” Maglish pointed out.
Detective Mike Miraglia, who investigates sex trafficking with the Boise Police Department, said he’s come across ample anecdotal evidence of trafficking in the Twin Falls area in his work. It’s not uncommon for victims discovered in Boise-based investigations to tell police that they previously were prostituted out of Twin Falls hotels, Miraglia said.
“Anywhere that you have a prostitution venue, you have a good likelihood that some aspect of that will be commercial sex trafficking,” Miraglia said.
Small towns and rural areas aren’t immune to prostitution and sex trafficking, those who study trafficking in Idaho say. But unlike larger cities, where prostitutes are more visible on the streets, most deals in places like Twin Falls take place online, on websites such as BackPage.
Twin Falls police regularly check BackPage and similar sites for activity, Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury said, and police occasionally receive tips regarding online prostitution. Other times, he said, officers come in contact with prostitutes and johns in person at hotels or motels.
Although there was only one charge of prostitution filed in 2017, Twin Falls police made at least eight arrests, Kingsbury said, as well as one arrest for patronizing a prostitute. Those statistics were fairly consistent with recent years.
Typically, Kingsbury said, those arrested for prostitution in Twin Falls aren’t locals, but are passing through from larger cities such as Portland or Seattle. While he couldn’t say with certainty what percentage of prostitutes arrested operate independently, Kingsbury estimated that most arrestees are working either with or for someone.
“Any time you look at prostitution, then that in essence has the potential to be, and often is, a form of human trafficking,” Kingsbury said.
So, why aren’t those “someones” regularly arrested, too? In many cases, it’s as simple as not being in the wrong place at the time of the arrest: “Generally speaking, the pimp isn’t anywhere around, so we end up not finding them,” Kingsbury said.
Furthermore, trafficking victims are often hesitant to talk to law enforcement about their experiences.
“It’s very hard to get victims to come forward,” Miraglia said. “As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult for them to be able to deal with what they’ve been going through, especially victims who are forced.”
Maglish of INsideOUT, who consulted with Rep. Crane on the bill that would make first-time solicitation a felony, hopes the legislation, if passed into law, will deter potential johns and drive down demand for trafficking victims.
“It doesn’t start with someone saying ‘I want to buy a child today, I want to buy a woman.’ There’s a progression,” she said. “If we don’t criminalize the whole act, it’s more likely that it will get more pervasive.”