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BOISE — Human trafficking, an often-invisible crime that experts say is more common in Idaho than many people might think, will receive attention in the statehouse again this year as awareness continues to grow across the state.

Two pieces of legislation aimed at better understanding and curbing human trafficking and protecting its victims will receive hearings in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, the committee voted Wednesday. Meanwhile, a bill resembling failed legislation from 2018 that would have made first-time solicitation of a prostitute a felony is expected to resurface in the 2019 session.

Both human trafficking- and prostitution-related charges are extremely rare in Twin Falls County, but that doesn’t mean trafficking doesn’t happen in south-central Idaho. It’s not uncommon for Boise-based advocates and law enforcement officers to come across anecdotal evidence of trafficking in the Magic Valley, as the Times-News previously reported. But such crimes can be difficult to detect, and even harder to investigate and prosecute, police say. New legislation from the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission is aimed at making that process easier.

One of the bills introduced Wednesday officially gives prosecutors the discretion to divert juveniles who commit nonviolent offenses — such as prostitution — if the child committed the crime as a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking. The bill also lets any child or adult who is charged with a crime they committed as a result of being trafficked assert an affirmative defense that he or she was a victim of human trafficking.

Many prosecutors already divert juveniles caught up in trafficking-related charges, Dawn Maglish, a member of the state’s subcommittee to address human trafficking, told the Times-News. Maglish is the founder of INsideOUT, a Boise area-based advocacy organization that helps trafficking victims. She said it’s rare for prosecutors to charge minors with prostitution.

The legislation introduced Wednesday would simply codify that discretion, Maglish said.

“I think the courts have done a good job identifying and diverting kids who are victims in the criminal courts system,” Maglish said. “It’s a good law that reinforces what’s already being done.”

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Twin Falls Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs said he doesn’t have any objections to the bill.

“It looks like it will provide some good tools for prosecutors to help these victims of human trafficking and make sure there’s an option to look into the facts of the case and see if the reason they were committing some kind of infractions was because they were victims of human trafficking,” Loebs told the Times-News after the vote.

The other bill introduced Wednesday would amend existing statute to acknowledge the presence of human trafficking in Idaho and the importance of training law enforcement to better understand and respond to trafficking cases. It would also add language recognizing labor trafficking.

“Feedback we received from law enforcement ... is that law enforcement had difficulty identifying human trafficking cases,” Eric Fredericksen, chairman of the human trafficking subcommittee, told the Senate committee. “The goal of this and the additional training is to help officers identify those situations where they can ask additional questions.”

But perhaps the most significant change proposed in the bill is making human trafficking an independent criminal offense. Under current law, a person may only be charged with trafficking as an enhancement on top of another crime — and sometimes, the trafficking enhancement gets dropped, Fredericksen said. The Idaho Criminal Justice Commission legislation would make human trafficking a standalone offense, a move aimed at making it easier to investigate and prosecute traffickers.

Making trafficking a standalone charge could also help the state better track exactly how common trafficking is, Fredericksen noted.

“This last legislative session, a question I repeatedly had was ... how much human trafficking do we have in Idaho?” Fredericksen said. “I don’t think anybody was happy with my response of, ‘I don’t know.’”

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