HONOLULU—Lawmakers heard testimony today from sex trafficking victims who said Hawaii needs to do more to protect people from slavery.
A bill that will make sex trafficking a Class A or Class B felony advanced through the House Committee on Human Services this Thursday, February 17, following an informational briefing that preceded committee action on the measure. House Bill 576 will now move on to the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill imposes mandatory sentences for those convicted of sex trafficking and recognizes trafficked individuals as victims. Hawaii is one of only a handful of U.S. states without such legislation.
The informational briefing that preceded committee action saw several women testify. A mother of a 16-year-old girl trafficked for prostitution characterized Hawaii’s current laws, which do little to protect trafficked individuals, as “absolutely reprehensible.”
Victims of sex trafficking also testified at the briefing. It was clearly difficult for the women to speak about their experiences, and some of them were driven to tears as they recounted being victimized. Two of the women who spoke asked to be kept off of the cameras of the news media at the briefing, and were accommodated. Their discomfort was palpable.
Committee Chair John Mizuno was gracious and accommodating, repeatedly thanking the women who spoke for their courage and their support of the bill. Although pressed for time, as the deadline for action on the bill was set for 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, Mizuno allowed those who wished to speak ample time to relate their experience and support of House Bill 576.
Following the informational briefing on House Bill 576, the House Human Services Committee convened to take action on the bill. Mizuno stated clearly, and often, that he intended to “move the bill” through the committee and on to the Judiciary Committee. In light of that fact, and due to time concerns, dozens of supporters of the bill declined to speak and stood on their already submitted written testimony.
Several people did choose to speak in support of the bill, many of them from the University of Hawaii School of Social Work who discussed their concern for the welfare of children targeted and victimized by sex traffickers.
Speaking briefly in opposition of House Bill 576 was a representative of the State Attorney General’s Office. He said the bill seeks to prohibit behavior already prohibited by current statutes and includes various legal flaws. The Attorney General’s office under the Lingle administration also opposed similar bills.
Kathryn Xian of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery is encouraged by the progress House Bill 576 has made. She is optimistic that the bill will make it through the Judiciary Committee and over to the State Senate. She is, however, also concerned that the bill will be gutted for provisions opposed by the Attorney General and Prosecutor offices.
“Those who oppose the bill are interested in preserving the status quo,” Xian said. She also says, however, that the bill is likely to advance because of the popular, moral support it has received from victims and advocates.
Xian says that House Bill 576 is likely to face more ardent opposition in the future Judiciary Committee hearing.
Mizuno urged supporters of the bill to confer and cooperate with all agencies and individuals with a stake in the passage of House Bill 576, cautioning against adversarial rhetoric in debate over the bill. He said that other similar trafficking bills, House Bill 946 and House Bill 497, have already advanced through committee, and that in the event that House Bill 576 should fail to advance, the other bills can be used as vehicles to remedy the issues addressed by House Bill 576.
In moving the proceedings along before advancing House Bill 576, Mizuno said: “We’re racing against the clock, and I don’t want to lose this bill.”