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Sex trafficking ban must become law

If the governor vetoes Hawaii's proposed anti-sex trafficking law, the 50th state will remain the only state in the union without such a ban, and the islands will remain open for "business" to pimps and johns.

It’s almost done.

After a decade of tinkering with the state’s prostitution code to address modern day slavery, Hawaii is on the cusp of banning sex trafficking. When we do, we will be the final state in the nation to outlaw forced sexual servitude, completing a portrait of a country in which the exploitation of vulnerability is criminalized from sea to shining sea.

On May 5, 2015, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 265, the vehicle for stopping slavery on our shores. Drafted by IMUAlliance’s Kris Coffield and Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery’s Kathryn Xian, with the help of concerned lawmakers, the bill creates a victim-centered, anti-trafficking legal framework by changing the state’s first degree promoting prostitution statute into a sex trafficking law, eliminating the possibility of jail time for child prostitutes, and expanding witness protection and civil remedies for survivors of this horrible crime.

All it takes to finish the job is Gov. David Ige’s autograph.

Disappointingly, the governor’s signature is proving difficult to obtain. On June 29, Ige announced that the sex trafficking ban was included on his “intent to veto” list. Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and local law enforcement have been calling for the governor to keep the cap on his pen, claiming that the bill will make prosecution of pimps more difficult by establishing a “loophole” for child traffickers.

They’re wrong. Ige should stop listening to them. Immediately.

Far from tying prosecutors’ hands, SB 265 removes the criminal label from survivors’ heads, demolishing one of the primary barriers to successful trials. Pimps often tell their victims that police contact leads to abuse and arrest, rather than rescue and rehabilitation. Already suffering high levels of traumatic stress, victims, in turn, think that seeking help will lead to blackmail, assault, rape, or a life behind bars; beliefs that are reinforced by disciplinary law enforcement actions like the Honolulu police department’s recent detainment of “prostitutes” for sexual assault, a crime subject to sex offender registration.

Kaneshiro’s legal logic is deeply flawed. At the center of his analysis is the bill’s revision of our state’s “promoting prostitution in the first degree” statute to the crime of “sex trafficking,” with the lesser offense of “promoting prostitution in the second degree” left as “promoting prostitution” for prosecutors to use when evidence of coercion or witness testimony are lacking (in cases involving adult victims). In the legislation, sex trafficking is defined as advancing or profiting from the prostitution of an adult by “force, threat, fraud, or intimidation” or, alternatively, advancing or profiting from the prostitution of “a person less than eighteen years old.” While the bill includes clarifying language, the core of these definitions are already included in state law.

According to Kaneshiro, the restriction of the lesser promoting prostitution offense to perpetrators who target adult victims would prevent law enforcement from prosecuting pimps who have no knowledge of their victim’s age. Victim service providers can attest, however, that sex traffickers are always aware of the age of their victims, often because they control the personal identification and government documents of their prey. This is especially true for child traffickers, who exploit their victims’ youth as a hot commodity. In a society that commercializes Asian schoolgirls and so-called “Lolitas” (to wit: American Apparel’s infamous “Meet Our Models” advertising campaign), young women command a premium from johns seeking “fresh,” “unspoiled,” and “trainable” girls, or looking to live out pedophiliac father-daughter fantasies (on more than one occasion, victim advocates have encountered men dressing child “prostitutes” in their daughters’ clothes before sex). 

Restricting promoting prostitution to adults, it should be noted, would also ensure that child traffickers are prosecuted for sex trafficking, graded as a class A felony, without relying on police-compelled victim testimony. As Shared Hope International explained in a supportive breakdown of the ban’s impact, exploited minors will no longer be labeled as “prostitutes” and unjustly penalized for their own victimization. Federal law and leading anti-trafficking agencies recognize that prostituted children are, by definition, unwilling survivors of violent exploitation. Sadly, Hawaii still brands them as criminals, arresting and re-traumatizing them through the courts if they don’t directly divulge actionable information about their pimps. It’s time for that to change.

Additionally, on May 14, Kaneshiro wrongfully claimed in a letter to the governor, “In addition to proving that the prostitutes were forced or underage, the state would now be required to prove additional conduct,” such as extortion, kidnapping, assault, or sexual assault. Contrary to the prosecutor’s deceitful assertion, the eleven violent acts named in the bill are examples of force, threat, fraud, or intimidation that automatically trigger a sex trafficking charge. These acts do not exhaust the possible kinds of coercion for which trafficking can be prosecuted or add elements of proof, but instead build upon the more general language to make clear that any type of coercion constitutes sex trafficking, including, but not limited to, the violent acts enumerated in the bill.

One wonders why the Honolulu Prosecutor is so fixated on criminalizing sexually exploited kids. After having 20 sex assault cases dismissed because his office lost track of the paperwork, in 2014, Kaneshiro should show more sympathy for survivors of sexual terror.

Ige must make a choice: stand with pimps and johns or sign the sex trafficking ban. With 150 high-risk sex trafficking establishments in Hawaii, more than 110,000 ads for local prostitution posted online each year, and an average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation of 13-years-old, that decision should be clear. Our attention, at this point, should move from public policy to prevention education, from the zone of legislation to homes for restoration. Yet, without an effective ban in place, progress on ancillary anti-trafficking efforts will remain limited.

At the very least, Ige should allow the bill to become law without his signature, while tasking advocates and law enforcement with recommending further changes next year–like establishing the lesser offense of second degree sex trafficking to remove the “prostitute” stigma from all victims, regardless of age–to improve implementation and enforcement. We cannot let more victims suffer because of philosophical differences, though, or permit more pimps to escape the full force of the law.

To do so would be political malpractice. More importantly, it would send the signal that when it comes to the slave trade, the islands are open for business.

Kris Coffield is the Executive Director of IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy organization devoted to advancing human rights, socioeconomic equality, and educational opportunity.