Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro wants Hawaii Gov. David Ige to veto a sex trafficking bill because he’s concerned the measure could make it more difficult to lock up pimps, johns and madams.

Senate Bill 265 received unanimous support in the Legislature, and was lauded by advocates as a paradigm shift for a state that’s known for lenient enforcement of prostitution and sex trafficking. The bill’s main goal was to treat those forced into prostitution as victims instead of criminals, in part by providing them with witness protection services and the ability to collect damages.

But Kaneshiro told Civil Beat that SB265 adds several new provisions to the state’s “promoting prostitution” statute that will effectively limit his ability to gain convictions in sex trafficking cases.

Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro.  18 may 2015.  photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro takes pride in his efforts to combat sex trafficking.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This bill that was passed was passed under the claim that Hawaii does not have a sex trafficking law,” Kaneshiro said. “What they’ve done with this bill is create more of a problem for us.”

In a three-page letter to Ige, Kaneshiro says SB265 will “severely restrict and deter” his ability to prosecute sex trafficking cases because he will need to collect more evidence of other illegal acts, such as extortion, kidnapping, fraud or deception.

He also said that there are problems in the bill’s language that would made it difficult to prosecute a pimp for exploiting a minor if the pimp didn’t know the victim was under 18 years old. Under the current law, all he has to prove is that the pimp profited from the prostitution of a minor to get a felony conviction.

Kaneshiro says in his letter to Ige that the Legislature passed SB265 on the “erroneous belief” that Hawaii does not have a sex trafficking law. He told Civil Beat that was a false narrative pushed by outside advocacy groups that simply wanted to see the words “sex trafficking” written into state statute.

Kaneshiro takes credit for reforming current prostitution laws to better tackle sex trafficking. Since those laws were changed in 2011, he says his office has prosecuted 22 people for promoting prostitution, and recently gained a 20-year conviction for a man involved in trafficking.

He also points to Hawaii’s improved rating by the nonprofit Polaris Project, which analyzes each state’s trafficking laws. In 2011, Hawaii was considered one of the worst states in the U.S. But in the most recent rankings Hawaii was rated in the top tier.

And Kaneshiro isn’t the only one concerned about SB265. The Honolulu Police Department opposed the measure in the Legislature, saying it left out consideration of individuals engaging in prostitution of their own free will. The state Attorney General also expressed concern that the bill overlapped and conflicted with existing laws as well as made prosecuting sex trafficking cases more difficult.

The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender plans to push Ige for a veto as well, citing many of the same concerns raised by Kaneshiro, the police and AG’s Office. Chief Deputy Public Defender Timothy Ho even says SB265 is “poorly written” and “kind of a mess.”

“It actually adds confusion to the laws that already prohibit sex trafficking,” Ho said in an interview Monday. “There are certain people who are advocates for this law that don’t believe any person would willingly and voluntarily take up the profession of prostitution, and that every single person who is selling themselves for sex would have had to have been trafficked at some point. And we don’t believe that’s true.”

Ho said that the current laws provide prosecutors with more leeway to fight sex trafficking and other illegal activities. The new law will only muddy the waters and make it more difficult to prosecute traffickers because there will be a higher threshold to get a conviction.

“They want to be able to tout that they have this law, but it doesn’t mean that it’s better or more effective to prosecute sex trafficking,” Ho said. “If I’m a prosecutor, I want the lowest possible standard.”

Still, there are many who want to see SB265 become law. Kathryn Xian heads the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, and has been one of the most vocal advocates for victims of human trafficking.

She doesn’t buy Kaneshiro’s argument that he won’t be able to take down sex traffickers as easily under the new law. Instead, she believes he will have even more tools at his disposal if Ige signs the measure, including the ability to do wiretaps.

Xian says Kaneshiro and others who don’t support SB265 are relying on an “archaic” system for nabbing pimps, and that’s to coerce prostitutes to testify in exchange for having their own charges dropped. This puts these individuals in a difficult position because it opens them up to the possibility of retaliation, not only from their pimp but from the prosecution as well.

“The essential thing is you don’t want to criminalize the girls,” Xian said. “You want to have prosecutors working with the victim advocates.”

Because if a case goes awry, she said, there can be “a slew of girls left on the sideline as collateral damage.”

Read Kaneshiro’s letter here:

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