Updated story: A bill to increase penalties for child sex trafficking is on hold after advocates for legalized prostitution pushed for further study of the issue.
The bill would have made it a Class A felony to pay, agree to pay or offer to pay for sex with someone younger than 18, bumping the potential penalty from 3½ to seven years in prison to up to 15 years.
The House Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday voted 11-7 to retain the bill until next year, with some members saying they want to evaluate the effectiveness of the current law, passed two years ago.
"The law has not been around enough to have much data," said Rep. Linn Opderbecke, D-Dover. "We really want that data before we make it a Class A felony."
Rep. Jody McNally, R-Rochester, disagreed. She argued unsuccessfully in favor of sending the bill to the full House for a vote.
"This is not about the johns, this is about the kids," she said. "It's not going to get better unless we get penalties and punish people who make that choice."
A new national group called Decriminalize Sex Work hired a local lobbyist and sent representatives to a public hearing last month to oppose the bill. The lobbyist, former state Sen. Bob Clegg, said such penalties put women at risk by driving prostitution further underground.
"What they've been doing is just coming in and constantly increasing the penalty against the johns. The problem is, it doesn't work," he said.
"They're not trying to stop this," he said of his clients. "They're just saying let's take a few months, look at all the laws, and look at what everybody else has done, and do something reasonable."
Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said it wasn't surprising that the prostitution industry is trying to kill an effort to hold predators accountable because it relies on former and current abuse victims for profit.
"The lobbyists for this industry will tell you that this is an effort to empower women - but, in reality, their goal is to allow their clients to operate brothels and escort services to profit from the sale of women and teen's bodies," she said in a statement. "Plain and simple: the men making money off of legalized prostitution have tried to hijack a bill intended to keep child victims safe in an effort to allow pimps to set up shop in our state."
While the bill sought to amend the state's law on human trafficking, the state's sexual assault laws also address the abuse of minors, with charges and penalties varying based on the nature of the assault, the use of force and the victim's age.
-- Holly Ramer, Associated Press
(This story was updated Thursday afternoon to clarify that the bill applies to the child sex trafficking law, which considers anyone under 18 who sells sex an abuse victim.)