The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta. The Senate approved a bill June 7, 2023, to partially decriminalize prostitution. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate passed Wednesday a bill to partially decriminalize prostitution while increasing penalties in some cases for buying sex, putting the change on track to get through the Legislature.

The bill from Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, cleared the House last month, with seven Republicans joining the Democratic majority in backing it. It still faces votes in both chambers, and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a similar bill in 2021.

Democrats pushed the measure through the Senate on Wednesday, with Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the lone Republican to support it. Others in his party favored an unsuccessful amendment from Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, that would have kept prostitution illegal while retaining the legal defenses — such as being threatened or compelled through drugs and alcohol — available to a person charged with the crime.

Mills, who vetoed a similar bill from Reckitt two years ago over concerns it would lead to more human trafficking, has not yet commented on this year’s measure. The former prosecutor and attorney general could be the major obstacle to the bill this time as well.

Engaging in prostitution is currently a Class E misdemeanor in Maine, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The bill would eliminate that penalty while elevating the crime of seeking the prostitution of a child or person with a mental disability from a Class D misdemeanor to a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Reckitt said other countries have seen positive results with implementing partial decriminalization, saying she worked on her bill with numerous survivors of human trafficking.

“I have pledged to these survivors that before I step down, I will try to make sure I find every place in state government where they could be helped under current law,” Reckitt, who is in her fourth consecutive term and cannot run again due to term limits, said earlier this week.

But she faced pushback from left-leaning groups that wanted her bill to also include decriminalization for buyers of sex and from conservatives who are uncomfortable with allowing prostitution in any form.

“We absolutely cannot create a more open pathway to a demoralizing and dehumanizing yet legal and lucrative enterprise,” Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said on the floor Wednesday.

Hawaii became the first state to adopt the “partial decriminalization” model in 2021 and is among several states this year that have considered full decriminalization.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...