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It’s an oft-repeated, seemingly appalling fact about Hawaii that the state has no sex trafficking law on the books.
While there is no law that is explicitly labeled as a “sex trafficking” law, the state has actually made progress in recent years when it comes to fighting sex trafficking. Well-intentioned advocates and lawmakers tried to push the issue even further this session with Senate Bill 265, now on Gov. David Ige’s desk.
SB 265 would finally and officially give Hawaii an explicit sex trafficking law, and while this would be a moral victory, the bill’s merits pretty much stop there.
The bill passed the Legislature unanimously — what politician wants to be accused of being “soft” on sex trafficking, after all? But it faces considerable opposition from law enforcement, including the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney, the state’s Attorney General, the state’s Public Defender and the Honolulu Police Department.
According to all four agencies, SB 265 would actually hurt efforts to prosecute the lowlifes who profit from sex workers.
They argue that the bill conflicts with existing legislation (making it more difficult for juries to follow and understand) and creates higher barriers for proof, all of which makes prosecuting sex trafficking cases more difficult.
There is also one glaring, unforgivable loophole when it comes to underage victims.
SB 265 may make it difficult to prosecute a pimp for exploiting a minor if the pimp didn’t know — or claims he didn’t know — the victim was younger than 18. Under current law, all that needs to be proved is that the pimp profited from the prostitution of a minor to get a felony conviction.
This unintended error alone is enough to damn SB 265 as bad legislation. The fact that the Legislature passed the bill unanimously in the face of serious opposition from law enforcement — both prosecutors and defense attorneys — further highlights the complexity of the issue.
A well-intentioned Legislature can’t act alone. Any approach to addressing these crimes needs to be done in partnership with prosecutors, police, health care, victim services and witness protection, and they all need to buy into the effort in order to make progress.
In 2011, Hawaii was ranked one of the worst states in the country for its trafficking laws by the nationally respected nonprofit Polaris Project. (Civil Beat reported extensively on the issue in 2012 with our series “Cops, Prostitutes And Pimps.”)
The state has since revised its legislation and, even though the words “sex trafficking” aren’t officially part of the statute, we have related prostitution laws that have the same elements. In the most recent Polaris rankings, Hawaii is now among the best states in the country for anti-trafficking legislation.
While this is good news, rankings alone don’t equate to success, and anyone who takes a walk through Chinatown knows there is still considerable work to be done.
According to Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, the biggest hurdle to successfully prosecuting sex trafficking cases is making the victims feel safe enough to share what has happened to them.
“For them to testify,” he told Civil Beat earlier this week, “they need to be removed from the environment of violence.”
His office is working to open the Honolulu Family Justice Center — a 24-unit project being developed in Makiki — to house and support these victims. This approach is a laudable first step and we encourage Kaneshiro and other stakeholders to continue down this path.
But across the board, Hawaii officials and law enforcement still have a lot of work to do when it comes to fine-tuning the laws. While the existing legislation is proving to be adequate, we can improve our implementation, starting with changing the definition of success from securing testimony to fully supporting the victims.
The global standard on this issue is clear. Overwhelmingly, the women and children in this space are victims. Law enforcement and prosecutors need to recognize this fact from the get-go in order to make any progress. The recent arrests at a Chinatown massage parlor for instance, where prostitutes were charged with sexual assault, are extremely counter-productive.
It is easy to empathize with the legislators and anti-trafficking activists who drafted and wholeheartedly support SB 265. Their cause is righteous, and we are all eager to see substantial progress on such a devastating issue.
Unfortunately, it is a messy and flawed bill. At best, it allows for a whole class of vulnerable victims (those who are underage) to potentially fall through the cracks. And at worst, it makes prosecutions more difficult and pits the issue’s most important stakeholders against each other.
Supporters SB 265 accuse the legal officials who oppose it of “misreading” the bill. While it’s doubtful that some of the state’s most experienced attorneys could collectively misread a bill that is so squarely in their purview, it’s also important to note that good legislation does not fall victim to misinterpretation.
If a law is prone to being misread, then it’s not a very good law.
And we shouldn’t settle for that. Hopefully, Gov. Ige will hold out for a higher standard.