Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Monday that he plans to veto a sex trafficking bill that many in law enforcement have said will make it more difficult to lock up pimps and madams.
Ige is threatening to veto Senate Bill 265 despite protests from several advocates who have asked him to ignore the legal advice of his attorneys and enact a law that they believed would greatly improve prosecutors’ ability to take down sex traffickers and protect victims.
But while Ige said he supported the intent of SB 265 — which passed unanimously in the Legislature — sloppy language and concern over how the bill would interact with other sections of the penal code gave him pause.
“I am committed to improving the laws regarding sex trafficking but this is on the list because of concerns raised by the Attorney General and three of the four prosecutors in the counties,” Ige said during a Monday press conference. “The unintended consequences of this measure would be loopholes (in the law) and may actually make it more difficult to prosecute sex-trafficking crimes.”
The governor asked Attorney General Doug Chin to work with local prosecutors on a new bill that Ige hopes will address sex trafficking in a comprehensive manner and allow for aggressive prosecution of traffickers.
He added that the AG’s Office is already undergoing a review of the state’s penal code, and that he has asked Chin to pay special attention to the “promoting prostitution” sections that would have been amended by SB 265.
Proponents of SB 265 often said that Hawaii is the only state without a sex trafficking law. While the words “sex trafficking” are not written into the penal code, state and county attorneys say that the current promoting prostitution provisions can be used effectively to take on traffickers.
Nick Sensley is a former California police chief who helped launch the first anti-trafficking task force in the U.S. He’s been working with local, state and federal agencies in Hawaii since 2013 to improve law enforcement’s approach to trafficking issues while at the same time getting them to work collaboratively with nonprofits and other service providers.
He said Hawaii’s promoting prostitution law aligns with federal sex trafficking statutes as well as those found in other states, so it can be effective in going after traffickers.
But the law’s major flaw — and one that’s often pointed out by critics — is that it still treats victims of sex trafficking as criminals and does little to help them remove themselves from their situation. For instance, law enforcement can use prostitution charges as collateral to get a sex worker to turn on a pimp.
Sensley said Ige’s tentative decision to veto SB 265 could actually make Hawaii’s laws stronger in the long run if there’s a full vetting of the issues by all the stakeholders involved rather than the piecemeal approach that appeared to have been taken with the current measure on the governor’s desk.
Many have questioned the tactics used by police and prosecutors to gain convictions.
“There’s been a lot of pressure and a lot of public banter about the whole issue,” Sensley said. “If this is in fact a move to generate further discussion and to give the opportunity for a full review of the issues then that’s a good thing.”
Hawaii law enforcement agencies are often criticized for their lax and sometimes misguided approach to combating sex trafficking on the islands.
For instance, a Civil Beat investigation found that the Honolulu Police Department only arrested one pimp in 2011 and that he was never charged with a crime. Experts said that statistic alone — along with the fact that only one pimp was arrested in 2010 — showed that sex trafficking was not a policing priority here.
Since then HPD and the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office have stepped up their enforcement of prostitution laws in an attempt to get more pimps behind bars. According to city prosecutors, at least 19 cases involving 22 defendants have been pursued since 2010 resulting in multiple prison sentences for sex traffickers.
But many have questioned the tactics used by police and prosecutors to gain those convictions.
Advocates say that the laws need to be changed so that officials don’t have to rely on the use of criminal charges to get prostitutes to flip on their pimps. This technique doesn’t instill trust in law enforcement, and some say it can further damage the psyche of those who are victims of sex trafficking.
“Law enforcement needs training to understand that the trafficking victims are not going to be your typical victims. They’re going to be resistant, hostile or even worse,” said Kevin Takata, a deputy attorney general who spearheads the state’s anti-trafficking task force.
“Law enforcement needs to understand that we’re not going to be the people on the white horse who come in and save these people, not in their eyes. What we’re facing are victims who have been brainwashed and that will have to be part of their rehabilitation.”
The task force is developing a hotline that service providers and police can call if they encounter a trafficking victim.
Takata, who declined to comment on the governor’s veto, said there’s currently a disconnect between law enforcement and the service providers who try to help sex-trafficking victims. Too often the police focus on locking up traffickers rather than looking for a new home or treatment options for those who are being exploited.
But Takata said the task force — which also focuses on labor trafficking — aims to improve the relationship between police, advocates and service providers so that everyone is working collaboratively to achieve the same goals.
For example, the task force is developing a hotline that service providers and police can call if they encounter a trafficking victim who might want to provide information on a pimp or simply seek help to escape their situation.
“When an arrest is made or a victim is identified we want to provide services to that victim,” Takata said. “But often law enforcement doesn’t know who to contact or what resources are out there.”
There have also been discussions about updating police strategies for nabbing traffickers to avoid criminal penalties for those who might be victims. In the case of illegal massage parlors, this could mean updating city or state laws to allow for surprise inspections by police or other authorities.
Ultimately, Takata said there needs to be a comprehensive education campaign that helps law enforcement and members of the public identify trafficking when they see it. It’s not always obvious, he said, and there aren’t any good statistics for just how prevalent the problem is in Hawaii, although anecdotally it’s larger than most suspect.
“We have to improve the way we do things,” Takata said. “This is a worldwide problem — and it’s going to have to be addressed on that scale eventually — but we need to start in our own backyard.”