So what’s the deal, Hawaii?

Is there something in the water here that makes it all but impossible for people with strongly held views to work out their differences?

That was the case with Furlough Fridays. The governor and other leaders patted themselves on the back for their good work resolving that mess. But everybody knew that the whole bunch was responsible for the deadlock in the first place.

Now it appears that the same thing is happening with a bill on Gov. Linda Lingle‘s desk. SB 2045 has the laudable goal of curbing a despicable practice: human sexual trafficking.

The nonprofit behind the bill sees it as a watered down first step, but an essential one. The best it could get. Next year and the year after, it says, the law can be strengthened. Police and prosecutors say it’s a botched job, and oppose the measure as unnecessary and even worse.

The Legislature unanimously passed SB 2045. But that doesn’t tell us much except that lawmakers are afraid of being tarred as soft on pimps. Nobody wants to give an election opponent an easy shot at an attack ad, especially when he knows that in most capitols the governor listens to law enforcement before deciding whether to sign any bill dealing with criminal matters.

Civil Beat has done a number of stories over the past couple of week exploring the tension over the proposed law, asking why the state is soft on johns, and comparing our legislation with a widely respected and tested approach taken by New York state.

It’s a complicated issue. There are few easy, black and white answers.

But if you’re concerned about the idea that human beings are being coerced into different forms of slavery — sexual and labor — in Hawaii, and that victims aren’t getting the support from government they need, you should be troubled by how people of good intention don’t seem able to work out their differences.

There’s a price to this dysfunction. A heavy one. Less is getting done to help victims than might be.

Here’s some of what we’ve learned from Civil Beat stories by Sara Lin and Adrienne LaFrance

  • Police don’t have the money or the resources to take on the problem. It’s not clear that the top brass want to. But they have an excuse right now to do what they can, but no more.

  • The feds have the money, but it’s mainly targeted at international trafficking. So it can’t always be directed to the right place.

  • Prosecutors are at loggerheads with the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS), the group behind SB 2045. The group, formed in 2009, has as one of its stated goals the advocacy of “local state legislation to make human trafficking a felony offense (especially laws that focus on prosecuting pimps and “johns”) and to ensure the enforcement of such legislation.” Prosecutors think that’s already happening. PASS and others beg to disagree.

  • Nobody wants to talk badly about good people, especially in public. So that means the public isn’t hearing the full story. (We’re trying to help with that.)

  • The social service agencies are right that more should be done to help prostitutes get out of their line of work and prosecute pimps and johns.

  • Hawaii’s john laws are among the weakest in the nation. No wonder many don’t trust prosecutors or police. They rightly wonder why nothing has been done about that. No good reason that we’ve heard. It seems like prosecutors don’t want more work. Tougher laws and a school for johns could raise money to help victims.

  • Prosecutors are right that the bill pushed by PASS should be vetoed. It would make it more difficult to prosecute human trafficking cases. If you don’t believe me, there’s plenty of convincing testimony on the state capitol website. One problem is that the proposed law seems to lump legal activities, such as nude dancing, in with illegal activities. If you want to read troubling writing, read this bill.

  • Prosecutors don’t do themselves any favors when they, along with the police, keep telling us that cases are being effectively prosecuted. Sure, some are. But where’s the leader who’ll stand up and say some things won’t be tolerated and more needs to be done. Is the police chief and city prosecutor really comfortable that the women working in many of the city’s massage and other parlors are there of their own volition and aren’t being abused?

If police and prosecutors could find a way to step out in front of the issue and build on the energy of community activists committed to helping in the fight, things might change. Instead, right now they may sit down together for their task-force meetings, but they sure don’t act like they’d like to break bread together.

Prosecutors are practical. They wanted to take incremental steps, including making sure that promoting prostitution is among the offenses given the highest priority when determining whether to relocate and provide living expenses for witnesses. Their ideas went nowhere.

The advocates are passionate. Their original bill may have been gutted, but they got something through.

Somewhere in between the two approaches lies the answer.

We need sober, rigorous, evidence-based education of the public and especially of johns about this issue. The social service groups can’t do it alone. They can seem too passionate. Nod at their words politely and move on might be the approach of too many.

We need independent, outside experts to evaluate the work of police and prosecutors here to tell us whether they’re accomplishing as much as their peers in communities recognized as leaders in this fight.

We need leadership. The bill is on the governor’s desk, as are many others. But in this case, it’s time for the governor to step into the fray and humbly tell the people what’s really going on.

Share some stories, governor. Tell us what we can do as a state that makes sense. Find some common ground and drag everybody toward it. Or even better, show people why they should want to move toward it.

You don’t have much time, governor. But you do have a voice. Use it to make people understand that something needs to be done and tell them what you think it should be.

That’s what a good governor would do. Now’s your chance to show you fit that description.


DISCUSSION What should the governor do with SB 2045? What should the state do to tackle human trafficking in Hawaii? Share your thoughts in our human trafficking discussion.

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