A man walks toward the State House in Augusta in February 2019.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan majority of the Maine Senate voted on Thursday to endorse a bill that would prohibit people younger than 18 from being charged with engaging in prostitution, following 20 other states with similar laws barring rare prosecutions of that crime.

The bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, aims to codify a prosecutorial policy that minors who could be charged with the misdemeanor crime of prostitution should be considered sex trafficking victims and not criminals. The bill doesn’t affect criminal codes for adults who engage in sex trafficking.

It passed the Senate in an initial 26-7 vote on Thursday and faces further action in both chambers. All Senate Democrats present for the vote backed the bill alongside seven Republicans. Another seven Republicans — including the two party leaders — opposed the bill.

Another 20 states and Washington, D.C., have laws barring people younger than 18 from being charged with prostitution or associated crimes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of those states — including Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma — require proof that the minor has been trafficked. Maine’s law would simply bar prosecution.

Diamond’s bill drew wide support at a public hearing in March from interest groups backing district attorneys, criminal defense attorneys and sexual assault victims alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The Maine Prosecutors Association said none of the prosecutors it consulted on this issue remember such a charge against a minor.

However, it said several prosecutors have reported an increasing number of youths in the juvenile justice system who are being sexually exploited or potentially being groomed for sex trafficking. The association called the bill “a positive step toward removing the stigma” of a charge, but not one that would alone improve services for trafficked minors.

“The assumption is that minors engaged in prostitution are victims of sex trafficking. We need to help them,” Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, said. “We do not need to threaten them with arrest to help them.”

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, a former sheriff’s deputy, led the Republican opposition to the bill on the Senate floor. He noted these charges aren’t pursued in practice and argued that they aren’t threats but deterrents that allow police to intervene to help victims. He said the bill was tantamount to “allowing prostitution for juveniles.”

“It’s just a charge. It’s just a deterrent,” Cyrway said. “Why should we throw away something that we can actually help someone with?”

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...