A bill that would ban sex trafficking passed out of conference committee in the Hawaii Legislature on Thursday afternoon.

Senate Bill 265 would replace the charge of first-degree “promoting prostitution” with the term “sex trafficking.”

If the bill is approved in floor votes in both chambers and is signed by the governor, sex trafficking would be a class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to a $50,000 fine.

Supporters of the bill say it would promote the concept of treating prostitutes as victims rather than criminals. Sex trafficking victims would be eligible for the statewide witness protection program.

Human trafficking prostitution

Sex traffickers trap teens in an environment where they’re often raped, beaten, starved and exploited for money.

“This bill will promote a more victim-centered approach, allow for keeping of accurate statistics and studies, and allow for early recognition of victims as victims,” Justin F. Kollar, prosecuting attorney of Kauai County, said in written testimony.

Kathryn Xian, executive director for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said that a sex trafficking ban in Hawaii is overdue. In written testimony, she said that she’d been working to introduce similar legislation since 2005.

Advocates of the sex trafficking ban say it will help to protect children that are coerced into prostitution. In 2013, 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims that were recovered from a nationwide raid by the FBI were from foster care or group homes.

However, the bill has been opposed by some people in law enforcement who say the current “promoting prostitution” statute is sufficient to prosecute pimps.

“While there is no doubt that sex trafficking is a serious problem, we have also encountered many people who engage in commercial sex of their own free will,” said Jason Kawabata, a captain in the Narcotics/VICE Division of the Honolulu Police Department.

The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office testified that the bill would narrow the scope of cases that it could prosecute, which could make prosecuting pimps more complicated. Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro told Civil Beat earlier this year that the prostitution statute gives police the necessary leverage to influence a prostitute to testify against her pimp.

“The current language of this bill would significantly narrow the scope of cases that we could prosecute against people who promote or advance the prostitution of minors,” stated the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office testimony.

The offenses that can be considered promoting prostitution were increased in 2011, which could be a factor in an increase in prostitution-related arrests, said Kaneshiro.

Honolulu police and prosecutors have gotten tough on suspected pimps. In 2013, 34 suspected pimps were arrested, and another 12 were arrested in 2014. In the years earlier, police arrested only one suspected pimp in 2011, and made no such arrests in 2012.

But advocates for the sex trafficking ban say current statutes still aren’t enough to protect those who are trafficked.

“Hawaii is a prime location for sex trafficking because of the tourism, military hubs, business and trade conferences and because it is an international travel destination,” Melody Rolnick, YES Hawaii Program Coordinator, said in written testimony.“When I worked as a shopkeeper in Waikiki, sex trafficking occurred right outside my shop.”

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