Hawaii’s prostitution and human trafficking laws just got a lot tougher.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed four bills into law this year — three on Monday — that increase services for victims and heighten penalties for those who solicit prostitutes.

No longer just a petty misdemeanor, soliciting sex from a minor is now a felony that carries a minimum $2,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Lawmakers also closed a big loophole in how “johns” who pay prostitutes are charged.

Prostitution involving adults is a petty misdemeanor, allowing many johns to opt for what’s called a “deferred acceptance of guilty plea.” If defendants stayed out of trouble for a six-month period, paid fines and fees and avoided other arrests, the charges were dropped and their records expunged.

The plea was basically a “slap on the wrist,” said Kathy Xian, the executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and the driving force behind the bills.

The johns were using the plea for multiple offenses – and they could use it repeatedly, she said.

Thanks to Senate Bill 194, that’s no longer an option. Prostitution offenses are no longer eligible for the deferred acceptance plea.

Another bill signed into law on Monday requires strip clubs, hostess bars and massage parlors to display a human trafficking hotline poster detailing how victims and the public can find help.

A fourth bill amends the law to allow child victims of human trafficking to be eligible for social services.

Taken together, the bills represent a huge turnaround for anti-human trafficking advocates at the Legislature.

Just three years ago, Hawaii was one of five states without a human trafficking statute. Local prosecutors and law enforcement said existing laws were adequate.

After a drawn-out fight in the Legislature, Hawaii got a human trafficking law in 2011. Meanwhile, victims of sex trafficking and prostitution were made eligible for witness protection in order to testify against their pimps.

Xian attributes the change in attitude to new leadership at the city prosecutor’s office.

“Keith Kaneshiro has really taken a step toward really wanting to bust the traffickers and end the demand,” she said.

Still, police at times appeared to have adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution.

A Civil Beat investigation of a year’s worth of prostitution arrests in 2012 found that police made virtually no prostitution arrests on weekends and arrested just one pimp.

Just last week, more than a year after his arrest, 28-year-old Isaiah Black was indicted for promoting prostitution in the first degree. If convicted, he could face 20 years in prison.

“We’ve come a long way since the beginning. It’s a really big deal,” Xian said.

About the Author