A bill sitting on Gov. Linda Lingle‘s desk that seeks to strengthen prostitution laws by recognizing some prostitutes as human trafficking victims has drawn strong criticism from prosecutors and law enforcement, raising questions about whether the measure, if passed, would ever be put into use.

Hawaii is one of just six U.S. states that does not have a law criminalizing human trafficking, or the illegal trade of human beings for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

Nonprofits working to help women escape from prostitution say the law would help shift police and prosecutors’ focus to those who keep women in prostitution and to their customers. But law enforcement says the measure would lead to confusion.

“What they’re basically doing is throwing up a smokescreen,” Kathy Xian, director of advocacy for the nonprofit Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said of prosecutors and police. “They’ve had five years to collaborate with us on language that would be conducive to protecting victims. Anyone can come up with critiques of problems.”

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 2045 would make the trafficking of sex workers a felony offense. The bill specifically outlaws sexual human trafficking, defined as forced prostitution, or forced work doing sexually-explicit activities, such as exotic dancing or erotic massage.

The bill passed unanimously out of the House and Senate. But law enforcement and prosecutors vehemently oppose the new legislation, saying existing laws are sufficient. Moreover, they say, vague wording in parts of the new bill could open cases up to legal challenges.

The bill “makes the law more difficult to apply. If the goal is to actually bringing perps to justice, this just makes the law more complex and more difficult to win a conviction,” said Bridget Holthus, special assistant to State Attorney General Mark Bennett.

“This proposal is legislative overkill…our laws are in need of a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” wrote Honolulu City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle‘s office. “The high risk of successful challenges to the proferred laws in this bill creates a significant disincentive for prosecutors to use this law if enacted. This, in fact, mirrors the experience of many other jurisdictions where complex human trafficking laws have been passed and state and local prosecutors have seldom used them.”

“The Honolulu Police Department opposes Senate Bill No. 2045,” Sean C. Naito, Captain of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Honolulu Police Department, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “These criminal offenses are adequately covered by the current statutes, and we have successfully investigated cases involving such offenses.”

Opponents also say the bill targets strip clubs by declaring erotic and nude dancing illegal. The bill defines a “prostituted person” as someone who engages in “sexually-explicit activity,” such as an “exotic or nude dancer.”

The bill represents an attempt to provoke law enforcement to adopt a more nuanced approach to curtailing prostitution. Proponents argue that current laws are too focused on punishing prostitutes, rather than their pimps or the men who solicit their services. They also say that existing laws penalizing pimps are too narrow, requiring proof of physical threat rather than psychological coercion, such as withholding visa documents or threatening family.

Hawaii’s prostitution laws were enacted in the 1970s, a time when society generally viewed prostitution as a vocational choice. As a result, the laws are targeted at prostitutes while penalties for solicitors, or johns, remain relatively lax: first-time offenders face a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail, and the latter penalty is usually dismissed.

According to a report by the Hawaii State Judiciary, 325 prostitution related cases were filed between July 2008 and June 2009. But of those, only 135 resulted in a conviction and only three cases involved felony forced prostitution, or trafficking.

State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said she introduced the bill at the urging of nonprofits and volunteer groups that provide social services for women who have escaped forced prostitution.

“There still seems to be more penalties that are focused on the person who’s doing the sexual activity as opposed to the people who are getting them involved in that activity in the first place,” Sen. Chun Oakland said. “We have to really shift that orientation.”

The senator was surprised at the strong opposition from law enforcement. Before the bill was introduced, she submitted it for vetting to a statewide anti-trafficking task force — administered by the attorney general’s office. She said she received little feedback. “If there’s opposition, they did not talk to me at all during the session,” she said.

One of the bill’s strongest backers is the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, an alliance of faith-based and secular organizations dedicated to ending human trafficking in Hawaii.

“If the law is appealed and proven to be faulty one way or the other, we can amend it. But we don’t think it is faulty,” said alliance spokeswoman Kathy Xian. Existing statutes are “effective for busting prostitutes, completely not effective in busting traffickers.”

Threats Against Family Kept 19-year-old In Line

Human trafficking is a phenomenon that has has been recognized in recent years as a fast growing, modern-day form of slavery — but one that is particularly difficult to measure, because victims are often hidden. This year, Vermont and Alabama also passed bills against human trafficking.

More than 1,200 alleged incidents of human trafficking occurred in the United States over a 21-month period beginning in January 2007, 83 percent of which involved allegations of sex trafficking, according to the the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Between 10 and 19 of those were in Hawaii.

Hawaii was among the first of 38 jurisdictions awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to establish an anti-trafficking task force to study the issue and coordinate remedies between law enforcement and social service organizations. Called the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the task force was established in 2005.

One 19-year-old woman who said she had been forced to work as a prostitute recently spoke to reporters about her ordeal. The woman, who requested anonymity because her captor is still at large, said her pimp had been a man she met on the Internet and formed a platonic relationship with before he turned on her. He waved a gun in her face every night and threatened to harm her family if she didn’t do as she was told.

“It was something I never thought would do ever in my lifetime. I came from a good family. We went to church. I graduated from high school with honors and had five scholarships to any school I wanted to go to,” she said. “He threatened me every night. He knew where my family lived. I’m so scared even to go out anywhere. I’m really scared even to find a job.”

“It was a numbing experience. I had to numb everything I knew. I just had to forget for awhile who I was,” she said as tears leaked out. “I was pretty much like a slave.”

Because the woman did what she was told, her captor never beat her and began leaving her alone for longer and longer stretches of time. After three months, she worked up the courage to walk away. She spoke with police but the scant evidence made the case hard to follow up on. Her pimp is still at large.

Jury Still Out On State Anti-Trafficking Laws

Human trafficking, when it involves crossing state lines, is a federal offense. But proponents of Hawaii’s anti-trafficking bill argue that many cases don’t involve crossing state lines.

They point to the case of Rodney D. King, brought to trial in state court in 1999 for trafficking minors for sex and receiving 30 months in prison afterward. A decade later, King was indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges involving three adult women and two minors. Federal prosecutors further alleged that King enticed one of the minors, a 16-year-old girl, into prostitution by giving her access to crystal methamphetamine. Last week, King pleaded guilty to sex-trafficking charges in U.S. District Court. Under the terms of the plea agreement, he will be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

To be sure, the jury is still out on how useful it is for states to have anti-trafficking laws. “A lot of laws were passed, some of which haven’t gotten a lot of use,” said Amy Farrell, assistant professor at Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice.

Most existing laws covering trafficking or involuntary servitude require proof of physical coercion, Farrell said. What makes modern day trafficking cases unique is the psychological coercion often at play, such as withheld visa documents for foreign nationals or threats to family. Those are dealt with in Hawaii’s proposed law.

“If you don’t have a law, it’s very hard to convince law enforcement that it’s not just the same thing that they see all the time and every day,” she said. “Most critically, it’s seeing that trafficking is a different kind of crime. This isn’t just prostitution.”

A spokesman for Gov. Lingle said she has not made a decision on the bill. The governor has until July 6 to sign, veto or allow the bill to pass into law without her signature.

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