CONCORD — The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has voted to hold on to a bill that would enhance penalties for sex buyers who exploit trafficked children.

The 12-7 vote on Thursday to retain House Bill 201 means the committee wants to hold on to it for further study, at least for now.

The bill would change the penalty for sex trafficking involving anyone under 18 from a Class B to a Class A felony, and states, “neither the actor’s lack of knowledge of the other person’s age nor consent of the other person shall constitute a defense.”

A person convicted of a Class B felony faces jail time of three-and-a-half years to a maximum sentence of seven years with fines up to $4,000. Computer fraud is a typical Class B felony.

Class A felonies are the most serious crimes, with conviction resulting in at least seven-and-a-half years of jail time. Examples include murder, kidnapping, sex crimes and drug-related crimes.

“The real thing we want to determine is whether the present Class B penalty is really working. Is it slowing the johns down from dealing with underage prostitutes?” said committee member Rep. Linn Opderbecke (D-Dover). “We really wanted to get that data before we make it a Class A felony.”

Voting in favor of retaining the bill were Reps. Renny Cushing, Linda Harriott-Gathright, Laura Pantelakos, Andrew O’Hare, Linn Opderbecke, John Bordenet, David Meuse, Nancy Murphy, Ray Newman, Julie Radhakrishnan, Sandy Swinburne and Scott Wallace. All but Wallace are Democrats.

Voting against the motion to retain the bill were Republicans David Welch, Dennis Fields, John Burt, Dennis Green, Jody McNally, David Testerman and Daryl Abbas.

McNally said the United States is the top market for prostitution, and tougher penalties are needed to discourage victimization of minors.

“This is not about the johns. This is about the kids,” she said. “As long as there is demand, it’s not going to get better until we increase the penalties and punish the people who make these choices.”

Pantelakos said she supports the bill but voted to retain it out of a concern that it would fail on the House floor in its current form.

Representatives of a national group that advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution appeared before the committee in January month to oppose the bill.

Their lobbyist, former Republican Senate majority leader Bob Clegg, argued that stricter penalties against prostitutes and their customers will drive the sex trade further underground, making it even more dangerous for victims.

Retaining the bill means it will not go to the House floor, and that the committee will make a recommendation to the House at a later date, possibly next year.

“By retaining the bill, the committee has refused to take immediate action to attack the demand side of sexual exploitation,” said Shannon McGinley of Cornerstone Action.

“The representatives voting to retain this bill have put the interests of traffickers ahead of the interests of children. They have a chance to change their minds, but in the meantime, children have been shunted aside.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com