AUGUSTA — A bill that would let victims of human trafficking have prostitution convictions vacated received overwhelming support during a public hearing Thursday, months after it was almost rejected.

L.D. 1730, sponsored by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, would give courts permission to vacate prostitution convictions against people who were forced or coerced into the crime.

The amended bill that Volk presented Thursday also would set up a compensation fund for victims, paid for with increased fines for those who are convicted of promoting prostitution. It also would make the crime of furnishing drugs to a prostitute an aggravated offense.

Volk said she was compelled to propose the legislation after learning about the increased prevalence of human trafficking in Maine, and the relative lack of protection for victims of trafficking, most of whom are women.

“I’m just glad that the bill finally saw the light of day, and today was the first time it really struck me that a remedy for women trapped by trafficking might be within reach,” Volk said.

Advocacy groups including the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Maine Women’s Lobby and the National Association of Social Workers testified in support of the bill. Destie Hohman Sprague, representing the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said a national hotline regarding human trafficking had received 180 calls that originated in Maine.

“And we know the prevalence is much higher than that,” she said.

Steve Webster, a detective sergeant with the South Portland Police Department, said the bill is a good first step toward addressing a problem that exists mostly in the shadows and is underreported.

“We had a high-profile case recently that glamorized prostitution,” he said, referring to Alexis Wright, who ran a prostitution ring out of her Zumba studio in Kennebunk. “But it’s not glamorous. I could tell you stories that would make you throw up.”

Volk’s bill sparked a political fight in October, when she presented it for consideration by the Legislative Council, made up of leaders from the House and Senate.

The Democratic-controlled body rejected it in a party-line vote, without explanation. After Volk and other Republicans cried foul, Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, accused Volk, a pro-life legislator, of trying to “soften her edges” on women’s issues by sponsoring the bill. Grant later apologized.

Volk appealed the decision. Democrats, after taking heat for Grant’s comments, reversed course and decided to let the bill in.

It is now scheduled for a work session next week and then a vote by the Judiciary Committee, which will make a recommendation to the full Legislature.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell