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A dark web ad promised sex with a Billings girl no older than 15 for $900 an hour.

Another Billings child was offered for sale at a local fast food restaurant.

A human trafficker forced a young mother to have sex for money in several states before moving to Gallatin County, where he beat her and sold her in Three Forks and Bozeman. He was arrested after her child asked a hotel desk clerk to call 911.

When the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office prosecuted a violent man who sold 17-year-old and 19-year-old girls for sex, the possible penalties for the pimp were a fraction of the maximum penalties Montana law provides for johns.

In one year's time, a Billings FBI agent documented 19,226 online ads for sex with girls or women in Billings, most of the ads involved local massage parlors. The agent also found thousands of similar ads for paid sex in Kalispell, Helena, Great Falls, Butte, Missoula and Bozeman. Billings had as many ads as all the other cities combined.

Bozeman ads for sex increased from 3,528 in 2016 to 5,133 in 2017.

These appalling facts on human trafficking and the sex trade in Montana were presented in testimony at the Montana Legislature over the past few months. It is time for lawmakers to take action against the traffickers who are preying on vulnerable Montanans, especially young women and girls who have previously been abused.

Senate Bill 147 aims to stop human trafficking by making the penalties for traffickers severe while protecting victims who have been forced or coerced into the sex trade. In a fiscal note for SB147, the Montana Office of Public Defender estimated that there are a "minimum of 15 operations involved in human trafficking in the state of Montana."

"In recent years, Montana has been ranked highest in the country for per capita human trafficking activity," said Sen. Margie MacDonald, who introduced SB147. "Human trafficking, including of very young girls, is expanding in part because of the ability to market via dark back channels of the web. Kids who are neglected or abused, runaways, already addicted to substances are highly vulnerable to being trafficked and the trafficking industry knows where to find them."

MacDonald is carrying Senate Bill 147 at the request of the Yellowstone Area Human Trafficking Task Force. She has been joined by a remarkably diverse group of cosponsors, including Republicans Geraldine Custer, Frank Fleming, Tom Richmond, Jason Small, Peggy Webb and Daniel Zolnikov, along with Democrats Jen Gross, Jessica Karjala, Kathy Kelker, Emma Kerr-Carpenter, Edie McClafferty, Mary McNally, Rae Peppers, Diane Sands, Bridget Smith and Sharon Stewart Peregoy.

Zolnikov, R-Billings, is sponsoring HB749, which passed the House 95-5 and has a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday in Senate Judiciary Committee. Zolnikov's bill would aid in prosecution of human sex trafficking in two ways by:

Requiring massage businesses to "conspicuously display on the premises the licenses of each massage therapist working at the business" and authorize law enforcement officers to enter a massage therapy business to determine compliance.

Appropriating $519,815 for the upcoming biennium to fund a two-officer human trafficking enforcement team in the Montana Department of Justice.

MacDonald's SB147 would:

Change the definition of prostitution to include direct sexual contact that is sold in some massage parlors and spas.

Increase maximum penalties for those who promote prostitution and further increase penalties for pimping victims of human trafficking.

Revise the definition of consent to protect human trafficking victims who have been forced or coerced to engage in sex acts.

SB147 "will allow law enforcement to expand investigations to massage parlors," Molly Rose Fehringer, a Yellowstone deputy county attorney, told a Senate committee. "It's a big problem in Yellowstone County."

SB147 passed the Senate 49-1. It needs to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday, and get House approval before the session adjourns later this month.

Montana needs both SB147 and HB749. Montanans cannot allow our state to be a haven for this 21st century slavery. We must protect vulnerable people — especially minors — from these sexual predators. Nationwide, the average age of victims is 12-14 when traffickers first snare them.

We commend the human trafficking task forces in Billings and across the state for raising awareness. We are pleased that a strong statewide coalition of criminal investigators, prosecutors and victims' advocates has formed to take the message to our lawmakers: We need your help.

MacDonald, Zolnikov and other legislators have already done much hard work to get SB147 and HB749 through the first chamber. Gazette readers are encouraged to help them get these desperately needed bills on their way to Gov. Steve Bullock. Please let your representative and senator know you want them to support SB147 and HB749.

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The Billings Gazette

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