Resolution that would ask voters to require life sentences for sex traffickers clears first hurdle

A number of proposals in the Arizona legislature aimed at sex trafficking, including one that would make the punishment for conviction a life sentence, moved forward Wednesday with support from groups inspired by a QAnon-linked film.

House Concurrent Resolution 2024 by Rep. Selina Bliss, R-Prescott, would let voters decide later this year if criminals convicted of sex trafficking should get life sentences with no possibility of parole. An identical measure in the state Senate was introduced by Sen. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix.

Bliss said the idea, dubbed the “Arizona’s Children Are Not For Sale Act,” was brought to her by a group last summer.

That group, named Arizona’s Children Are Not for Sale, was itself inspired by the film “Sound of Freedom,” released July 4, 2023.

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Sydney Hay, a representative of that group, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday that seeing the film inspired her to act after the crowd at the theater chanted “our children are not for sale.” The man whom it is based off of is now being sued for alleged sexual misconduct.

The film, which has ties to QAnon, allegedly portray the life of Tim Ballard, who ran an organization called Operation Underground Railroad which claims it has saved children from child sex trafficking in “sting” operations in various countries. Ballard has since left the organization after women who participated in its operations accused him of sexual misconduct.

During promotions for the film, Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Ballard, spread QAnon conspiracy theories. He has a long history of promoting QAnon beliefs, even showing up at QAnon conventions. Both Caviezel and Ballard have denied connections between the conspiratorial belief and the film.

Bliss told the Arizona Mirror she had not seen the movie and had no intention of doing so. A former emergency room nurse, she said she doesn’t enjoy films that touch on violence and sexual trauma because she has seen many of those things first hand.

Bliss also said she was unaware of the allegations against Ballard and the connections between the film and the world of QAnon conspiracy.

“Despite movies or dramas, this is a reality in Arizona, and the statistics are going the wrong way,” Bliss said, citing experiences noted by local groups who have seen an uptick in children who have been sex trafficked.

Hay, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, claimed her group is working with “multiple states” but did not respond to the Mirror’s interview request.

The resolution has supporters outside of the conspiracy world, as well. Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Newnum spoke in favor of the resolution, but said that there is some language that lawmakers should clean up prior to sending it to voters.

Arizona law on sex trafficking defines which actions fall into that category so that prosecutors can determine appropriate charges and sentencing recommendations. The resolution, however, has three definitions that critics said are vague and unclear.

“We are unhappy with the amount of trafficking still happening,” Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist representing the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence told the committee. “We don’t see how this is going to resolve those issues.”

Rodriguez and others contend that the proposal’s  emphasis on punishment will not help — that it could accidentally sweep in victims of sex trafficking, something they contended is already happening under current state law.

“Doubling down on that, expanding the language and making it even broader and vaguer is not the solution,” Rodriguez said. “I strongly suggest reevaluating this attempt. We are with you, we want to see an end to this horrible, horrible epidemic. But this is not the solution.”

During the same committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers also heard and approved a measure that would allow those convicted of prostitution since 2014 to have their conviction overturned if they can prove to a court that they were a victim of sex trafficking.

Advocates have long debated how to combat sex trafficking without harming victims or individuals engaged in lawful sex work, with some victims saying that current laws penalize those who have been most victimized. A number of states allow for minors to be arrested and charged with prostitution.

House Bill 2623 passed out of committee with unanimous support.

One victim, Sheri Lopez, spoke in favor of both proposals.

“For me, it is a life sentence,” Lopez told the committee about her experiences. “I encounter situations daily that bring me right back to where I was those days.”

Shaun Mohon, the executive director for Mingus Mountain Youth Treatment Center, told the committee that he supports the resolution, as he has seen the effects of the increase in child sex trafficking.

Bliss’ resolution passed out of committee along party lines, with Democrats voicing concerns over the vague language and existing law surrounding sex trafficking that could be used by prosecutors and judges.

Bliss said she is going to go back to legal counsel to discuss possible changes and hopes that she can get everyone on board.

Both pieces of legislation head next to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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