Little more than a year ago, Hawaii was one of only four states in the country without an anti-human trafficking law. Today, our state stands on the precipice of becoming a national anti-trafficking leader.

To achieve that status, local lawmakers must pass, and Gov. Abercrombie should sign, the abolitionist proposals outlined in Senate Bills 2123, 2576, and 2579, along with House Bill 1905. These measures address the state’s woeful lack of coordinated services for human trafficking victims, codifying enhanced legal protections and awareness provisions into Hawaii’s statutory scheme.

In its most recent form, SB 2123 would require the establishments most likely to participate in human trafficking — such as strip clubs, massage parlors, and farms — to exhibit an 8.5×11 inch poster on their premises, displaying the national human trafficking hotline number. Subsidized with federal funds and staffed by the Polaris Project, the hotline received 67 calls related to Hawaii, in 2011, more than quadruple the number of calls tied to local concerns that the hotline averaged between 2007 and 2010. Advocates, including the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and IMUAlliance, believe the measure will not only provide victims with a number to call for help, but spread awareness about human trafficking throughout the communities in which this under-recognized crime occurs.

New legal process enumerated in SB 2576 will, if they become law, allow sex trafficking victims to petition to have prostitution-related convictions and arrests vacated from public records, if they can prove that the violations were the result of force, fraud, or coercion. Disclosure of criminal convictions, including misdemeanor convictions, is often required for employment, housing, and loan applications. Since victims of sex trafficking and coerced prostitution are acting against their will (effectively, in a condition of slavery), they should not be held accountable for their actions in a manner that could prevent the obtainment of stable residency or entry into and matriculation through the workforce, both of which are required for successful recovery from involuntary sexual servitude.

Similarly, SB 2579 would immunize minors from prosecution for prostitution charges, provided that they are acting as a prostitute, rather than a patron of prostitution or pimp. Make no mistake, “victim” is exactly what these children are. While prosecutors contend that granting blanket immunity protection from prostitution would create a perverse incentive for pimps to solicit kids into the sex trade, the reality is that predators neither need nor respect such enticements. Instead, they rely on a combination of coercion and fear, telling victims that they and their families will be hurt, unless they cooperate with their captor’s demands.

Moreover, SB 2579 establishes “safe harbor” protections for rescued minors. Using the Department of Human Services’s no cost emergency shelter program, the bill permits children to consent to emergency shelter and services after being taken into custody, giving law enforcement and trained professionals a safe environment within which to approach a victim during the critical 24-hour period immediately following a rescue. Coupled with immunity, this strategy could cut the recidivism rate for minors acting as prostitutes to one-third, as has happened in parts of New York, thanks to a partnership between Girls Education and Mentoring Services, an anti-exploitation organization, and the state that is based on precisely this framework. Nationally, in locales without the protections envisioned by this measure, the recidivism rate hovers around 80 percent, according to Norma Hotaling, executive director of the Standing Against Global Exploitation Project.

Finally, HB 1905, an omnibus human services bill, contains language that would create a task force charged with crafting a comprehensive state plan for furnishing coordinated services to human trafficking survivors. It’s not an entirely new idea. In 2006, then Gov. Linda Lingle approved Act 260, launching the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force. At the time, the group was instructed to recommend statutory changes, develop protocols and training, and design data systems to combat human trafficking in the islands. Though the original sunset date for the task force, 2008, was extended to give stakeholders more time to complete their work, the 27-member group failed to devise a streamlined, strategic services plan before dissolving, in 2010. As recent cases of sex and labor trafficking demonstrate, however, the need for services is growing. With the passage of Hawaii’s first anti-trafficking laws, in 2011, the time for looking at services through the lens of of victims’ rights has never been more necessary or opportune.

With each year that additional services and protections are delayed, the need becomes more urgent. Unfortunately, local law enforcement officials are doing little to pick up the slack. As a recent Civil Beat investigation exposed, the Honolulu Police Department arrested just one pimp, in 2011, despite mounting pressure from advocacy groups and the media to justify their record of inaction. The security burden, then, falls to governmental and nongovernmental organizations that cultivate social welfare expertise.

In a time of fiscal and political austerity, the least that legislators can do is give them some help.

About the author: Kris Coffield serves as legislative director for the IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy group devoted to the protection of democratic ideals, eradication of inequality, advancement of educational opportunity, and animation of social critique.

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