A national group that advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution has hired New Hampshire lobbyists with Republican ties and is pushing for a review of the state’s prostitution laws.

Representatives of Decriminalize Sex Work appeared before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee earlier this month to oppose a bill that would have toughened penalties against customers of underage prostitutes.

A lobbyist opposing the bill, former Republican Senate majority leader Bob Clegg, said he believes he has convinced the committee to hold the bill for further study, including review of New Hampshire laws addressing prostitution.

Stricter penalties against prostitutes and their customers drive the women underground, he said.

“It makes it that much more dangerous for the women involved,” Clegg said.

It’s not the first time the Legislature has addressed prostitution.

Two years ago, the New Hampshire House passed legislation to study a change in the laws. It died in the state Senate.

This year, state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, had considered introducing a bill this year to study the legalization of prostitution but withdrew it, she said.

Supporters of victims of sexual assault oppose decriminalization and say it will undermine efforts to protect homeless youth and vulnerable adults from exploitation.

Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, noted that FBI statistics show that New Hampshire has a higher rate of rape than the rest of the country.

“We should be focusing our efforts on preventing sexual violence and trafficking, not on making New Hampshire a magnet for traffickers and pimps,” Sexton said.

Decriminalize Sex Work is a national organization that is launching its website later this month, said Kaytlin Bailey, the organization’s communications director, who testified before the Criminal Justice Committee.

A self-described former sex worker, Bailey said her organization differentiates between victims of trafficking who are forced into prostitution and people who willingly enter the trade.

Legalization would make trafficking victims free to speak to police without fearing arrest, she said.

She said the national organization kicked into gear after President Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act in April. In a draft news release, the organization said a California philanthropist provided seed money for a full-time staff and lobbying forms.

The staff includes three people active in the marijuana-legalization effort and lobbyists in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Decriminalize Sex Work is pursuing a state by state strategy, Bailey said. She said New Hampshire is one of the earliest states it has concentrated on, given its libertarian streak, the presidential primary and that “things are moving so fast” here.

She would not reveal the donors behind her organization.

“These are principled people who believe the state should not be putting people in cages for consensual sex,” Bailey said.

She said police are using federal grant money designed to fight sex trafficking to arrest non-trafficked women in the sex trade. She claimed a majority of prostitutes are not coerced into the business.

Bailey, 32, hosts a podcast and has performed a stand-up comedy routine based on her work as a prostitute. Testifying alongside her were Crystal DeBoise, a social worker who has worked for the Sex Workers Project, and Melissa Sontag Broudo, a lawyer who has worked for the Sex Workers Project and is a co-founder of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute.

Clegg and Periklis Karoutas of Legislative Solutions LLC are both listed as lobbyists for Decriminalize Sex Work.

Clegg acknowledged that Republicans distributed mailers last year trying to connect Democratic candidates with efforts to legalize prostitution. But he said that backfired. He said one mailer against Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, prompted many calls to Republican Party headquarters in support of the effort.

He thinks it ended up helping Cavanaugh.

“The Republican Party is a fractured bunch of idiots. I’m fed up with them,” he said.

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