Honolulu police and prosecutors have gotten tough on suspected pimps — more than 45 times tougher than three years ago.

“Things changed because the focus has been on going after the people who profit from prostitution and not just the prostitutes,” Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro said.

Police arrested only one suspected pimp in 2011, and made no such arrests in 2012. But in 2013, 34 suspected pimps were arrested, and another 12 were arrested in 2014.

Human trafficking prostitution

Public officials view some prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.

Kaneshiro said that the increase is largely due to a package of bills passed by the Legislature in 2011. The bills increased first- and second-degree promoting prostitution offenses to a class A and class B felonies. The bills also allowed prostitutes to qualify for the witness protection program.

Pimps are given the option to take a 10-year sentence, or face a mandatory 20 years in prison if they are convicted of first-degree promoting prostitution, Kaneshiro said.

A total of 18 promoting prostitution cases have gone to the prosecutor’s office since 2010. Two pimps were sentenced to 10 years in prison and two others to one year in prison and four years of probation. Another case was adjudicated in family court because the defendant was a minor.

“As a result of working with the police department, whenever they do an arrest of prostitution, they have offered an opportunity for the prostitutes to cooperate with law enforcement.” — Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro

Three cases were declined by the prosecutor’s office, three others were dismissed and one ended in a jury acquittal. There are three more cases set for trial this spring, and another three are in earlier stages of the judicial system.

Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said the increase in arrests and prosecutions is partly due to the stronger sentencing, but mostly due to greater community participation. That’s been boosted by a human trafficking working group that discusses sex trafficking legislation, she said.

“The community is a lot more vocal that they want something done,” Chun Oakland said. “There’s a greater awareness.”

Kaneshiro said that the change in the laws enabled police to give prostitutes a deal if they agreed to testify against their pimp.

“The whole purpose of getting the law changed and getting the penalties increased is we focused on going after the people who profit from prostitution,” Kaneshiro said. “As a result of working with the police department, whenever they do an arrest of prostitution, they have offered an opportunity for the prostitutes to cooperate with law enforcement.”

However, Kaneshiro said that the witness protection program hasn’t been as helpful as he hoped due to a lack of money, so he decided to take witness protection into his own hands.

In the future, some prostitutes could be served at the Family Justice Center, which will provide housing and support services to witnesses and victims of domestic violence, sex assault and human trafficking. The center, still in development, will be an important tool for increasing prosecution of these cases, he said.

Of the three promoting prostitution cases that were dismissed, two occurred because witnesses were either uncooperative or couldn’t be found.

In some cases, Kaneshiro believes, a prostitute is more a victim than a criminal.

“We have had some problems with our victims. Some of them are minors, some of them are intimidated and don’t have a place to stay,” he said. “That’s why the Family Justice Center will be a vital link to increasing the prosecution of these cases.”

The 24-unit apartment complex is currently in escrow, he said. The Family Justice Center would provide housing to witnesses for up to two years under supervision of the prosecutor’s office.

Kaneshiro and Chun Oakland agree that the state needs more supportive services for prostitutes. However, Chun Oakland said that Hawaii still has much to do when it comes to addressing sex trafficking.

The current statutes label individuals who might be forced into the illegal sex trade as prostitutes rather than victims of sex trafficking, she says.

“When you use that language, it basically makes the person not a victim or a survivor,” she said. “Whereas with sex trafficking, you don’t put that negative view on someone.”

Kaneshiro thinks that changing the language from promoting prostitution to sex trafficking would harm his ability to prosecute. Trafficking usually entails moving people across state or country lines, and most cases he’s seen have been within the state, he said.

“We’re prosecuting cases right now, so we don’t need a change in law,” Kaneshiro said. “Changes in the law can make it more difficult … then you’re going to get all these problems with the definition and all the legal interpretations that will hinder our efforts to prosecute.”

He also said the prostitution statute gives police the necessary leverage to influence a prostitute to testify against her pimp.

“I mean, why would a prostitute decide to be a witness and testify against a pimp if she’s only facing a violation?” Kaneshiro said. “If she’s facing a crime and if she might do jail time, she might have incentive to cooperate with law enforcement.”

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