Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill this week that would have put Maine in the forefront of a growing movement to decriminalize prostitution.

Gov. Janet Mills Screenshot from video

“Fully decriminalizing prostitution, I fear, will only increase demand and encourage the exploitation of young people by those who profit from the mistreatment of others, undermining the free will of those trapped in difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances,” Mills said in her veto message.

While the governor, a former prosecutor and attorney general, expressed support for trying “to reduce human trafficking and protect survivors of human trafficking,” she said she is “not convinced that the approach of this bill is the best path forward.”

Those pushing the measure, including District Attorney Andrew Robinson in Lewiston, said the proposal would decriminalize prostitution, allow its victims to have past convictions sealed and focus efforts on helping those who, as Robinson put it, are “caught up in the nightmare circumstances of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”

Robinson, who prosecutes cases in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, declined to comment on Mills’ veto.

The basic notion behind the bill is to reduce the legal consequences of getting caught selling sex and to increase the penalty for those caught buying sex from people who are often exploited.

It’s an issue that Mills said she’s long been concerned about.

The governor said in her veto message that she worries sex traffickers, or pimps, will point to the measure “as a way to entice more people” into the sex trade by telling victims “that what they are doing is not a problem.”

“No state in the nation has fully legalized commercial sex work,” Mills said. “Even in Nevada, known as the only state to have legal commercial sex work, prostitution is still illegal outside regulated designated facilities in a single county.”

“By contrast, this bill would make Maine the first state in the nation to eliminate all penalties for engaging in sex for money,” Mills said.

Existing state law classified engaging in prostitution as a Class E crime punishable only with a fine. While purchasing sex is also a Class E crime, it can be punished with jail time.

The bill would have eliminated penalties for selling sex while charging purchasers with a Class D crime. If someone tries to solicit paid sex from a minor, the bill would have upped the charge to a Class C crime.

A recent legal change allows sex sellers to offer an affirmative defense if they engaged in prostitution “prevent bodily injury, serious economic hardship or another threat to the person or another person.”

Mills called that provision “a more measured approach for promoting both public safety and compassion for survivors of sex trafficking” than the changes eyed in the bill supported by Robinson.

Another provision in the bill would have established a pilot program in Androscoggin County that would have created “a coordinated response among the agencies and organizations providing direct services to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking,” according to testimony by Nate Walsh, an assistant district attorney.

Walsh, who works on human trafficking cases in Robinson’s office, urged legislators to adopt the new approach called “the equality model” because it “shifts the focus from the victims to the sex buyers. If people
wouldn’t buy people, people wouldn’t sell people.”

“Addressing demand holds accountable those who inflict harm and exploit vulnerable people for sex,” he said. “Sex buyers are the ones in the equation who are deserving of a criminal penalty.”

“However, it shouldn’t end there,” Walsh said. “We should work to educate our communities about the harm that is being done through prostitution. We should talk about male entitlement. We should stop using the criminal justice system as the gatekeeper for access to services that should be provided to prevent involvement in the criminal justice system.”

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