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What killed Hawaii’s sex trafficking bill?

A step in the right direction toward combating sex trafficking in Hawaii has been torpedoed by some of the very people trying to end the exploitive practice; the evidence points to internal political squabbling as the reason.

Yesterday, July 13, Governor David Ige vetoed Senate Bill 265, which would have established a sex trafficking ban for Hawaii. With the veto, Hawaii remains the only state in the nation without a standalone sex trafficking law. The bill was drafted by sex trafficking victim advocates who say the law was aimed at helping victims escape from a life of prostitution controlled by pimps and traffickers.

“While this is a disappointing day for anti-trafficking advocates, my heart truly breaks for the numerous victims who would’ve been helped by this bill,” said Kris Coffield, Executive Director of IMUAlliance and co-drafter of the bill. “Instead of treating sex trafficking survivors as victims of violent crimes, [the governor] has chosen to continue calling them criminals and punish them for their own exploitation. Rather than stand with sex trafficking victims, he has chosen to side with perpetrators of sexual terror.”

The bill would have established a statewide witness protection program to protect victims from intimidation, tampering or retaliation; would have broadened the applicability of this witness program to include not only victims of the existing promoting prostitution crime, but also victims of organized crime, racketeering activity, and sex trafficking; and listed, in great detail, the many different acts that constitute different aspects of sex trafficking, the result being that prosecution could have been applied much more broadly to all the people involved in the different stages of exploitation, without changing the definitions of the existing promoting prostitution law.

The bill would also have made it clear that victims cannot be punished for being coerced into the sex trade, would have made it easier for victims to seek restitution for damages, and would have extended protection for minors. So why did the governor veto this bill?

The veto comes after Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin both pushed for it, claiming that the measure would add new evidence requirements to prosecution of pimps, thus making it harder to prosecute them.

But, according to Coffield, “Despite their legal experience, the attorney general and Honolulu prosecutor are mistaken in their analysis of the bill. Far from impeding prosecutions, this bill would have ensured that victims are properly identified and [would have] offered them the safety and security needed to disclose their trauma, in turn leading to a spike in arrests.”

The prosecutor’s office says it has been successfully using the existing promotion of prostitution law to put traffickers and pimps in prison, and the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) has also said that the current laws are sufficient to prosecute all acts of human trafficking related to commercial sex. Both the prosecutor and the police say that the biggest challenge is getting victims to cooperate, and that the anti-trafficking ban would make that even harder. HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said that from 2013 to 2015, seven cases were declined or dropped because of uncooperative victims.

But at least some of the prosecution’s less-than-stellar track record using the existing law stems from direct incompetence.

In a recent Star-Advertiser article about the hotel industry and sex trafficking, the daily briefly touched on a 2013 case in which a victim, Brittany Duncan, was arrested for solicitation at a Waikiki hotel after agreeing to have sex with an undercover officer for money. Police used existing laws as legal leverage to get her to implicate her alleged pimp, but then took almost a month to arrest him. The case dragged on even after she provided grand jury testimony and he was charged, and the experience left her shaken and scared.

From the Star-Advertiser:

“They delayed the case a lot. I remember wanting so badly for it to be over. They were using me to put someone else away. I was scared.”

Ultimately, the case of the second man accused of trafficking Duncan was dismissed this year because prosecutors failed to try the case within the time allotted for a fair trial.

“They lost evidence, and one of their collaborating witnesses disappeared,” said Kathy Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, which helped hide Duncan and paid for her rent and food. They also provided her with the emotional support to get through the legal process. Xian said the group has worked with about 125 victims since 2009, but she worries that some women and girls are falling through the cracks.

“If they don’t trust the system and they don’t cooperate, there aren’t any resources for them,” Xian said.

So when victims refuse to come forward to testify against pimps, at least part of that comes from that lack of trust in the system. And the vetoed bill directly addressed that issue in its language, making it easier for victims to seek protection from the state and from advocates like Xian.

“It’s extremely common for local law enforcement to lose evidence. In one case on which I worked, they even lost a victim,” Coffield told The Independent.

In 2012, IMUAlliance worked on a case in which two women were being trafficked at Club Sun, a strip club that was located off of Ward Avenue. In this case, one of the victims filed a report with HPD on her own initiative, saying that another girl was being held against her will at an apartment in downtown Honolulu.

“Unfortunately, the case never moved forward because law enforcement lost track of the victim herself,” said Coffield. “Had she been provided a safe and secure environment at the outset, that never would have happened.”

In 2013, the state passed a law requiring strip clubs, massage parlors and hostess bars to visibly display a poster with a National Human Trafficking hotline number for employees to see. Although the law comes with a $100 per day fine for failure to comply, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) includes this poster law under “laws not enforced by DLIR.”

“What’s more maddening to me, though, is the fact that we have approximately 150 high risk sex trafficking establishments in Hawaii, nearly all of which are known to law enforcement,” Coffield continued. “Yet, year after year, these places remain in business. Most of these places operate without proper licensing, which would be another way of taking them down. If we’re going to be serious about ending sex trafficking in the islands, we have to start shutting brothels down.”

The vetoed bill—which received wide support in the legislature and had the support of the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus—might not have been perfect, but it would have been a big step in the right direction for addressing the holes in our anti-trafficking arsenal. Most importantly, it would have signaled a shift in the way we treat those who are trafficked: as victims of exploitation, not criminals.

So why the veto? The politics of the situation have clearly obscured the critical goal of ending the criminalization of trafficked victims. What’s worse, it’s resulted in a fractured front among those who are fighting to end trafficking.

In a recent Civil Beat article that targeted Xian specifically, calling into question whether or not she isn’t doing more harm than good for victims, a parade of other anti-trafficking advocates, many of whom are involved with the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking (a task force which Xian is also a part of) call Xian out for having an “in-your-face” approach when it comes to advocacy.

Xian has been critical of the coalition, some of its members and the state and city, pulling no punches in her statements that authorities have been largely “ineffective” in combating sex trafficking. In a state that is famous for nice-nice politics in which aggressive, in-your-face approaches often ruffle established feathers, Xian certainly sticks out. But is a dislike for her attitude a legitimate reason to crusade against a good bill?

According to Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan, the governor received objections to the bill, not only from the law enforcement community, but from others in the social service community who work with victims. While the prosecutor can argue that the bill makes his job harder, it’s difficult to conceive of why other advocates would try to torpedo the bill as well, other than for political reasons.

One of the coalition members that Xian has been critical of is Hoola Na Pua, saying that the nonprofit lacks the experience necessary to run a proposed facility to house sex trafficking victims longterm. The Star-Bulletin article is entitled “Inexperienced nonprofit, Hoola Na Pua, urges delaying anti sex trafficking ban,” suggesting that they were among the other advocates McMillan says contacted the governor with concerns over the bill. (Editor’s note: One of Hoola Na Pua’s volunteer advisers, Nick Sensley, has worked with Civil Beat founder Pierre Omidyar for years, including as a “Strategist and Development Consultant” for Humanity United, an Omidyar Group foundation from November 2011–November 2013.)

But Hoola Na Pua volunteer Jody Allione told The Independent that her nonprofit supported the bill: “To set the record straight, Hoola Na Pua directors and numerous key volunteers urged the governor to sign SB265 [even] signing petitions supporting it,” she said. “[Hoola Na Pua] also orchestrated numerous testimonies supporting the bill throughout the session. Comments in the Star Advertiser were taken out of context to indicate that we didn’t support the bill. It is our intention to continue our mission to build a refuge for the restoration of underage victims.”

Ige has called upon stakeholders to draft a new proposal for next year’s legislative session. But will Xian be a part of the process? In Civil Beat’s article, Deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata says he doesn’t think Xian should be a part of the council anymore, because she is too hard to work with.

“With 150 high-risk sex trafficking establishments in Hawaii and an average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation of 13-years-old, local law enforcement should never play politics with protecting women and children,” said Coffield.

“We must strengthen our efforts to outlaw sexual slavery on our shores,” he continued. “Advocates must band together to echo the voices of victims whose stories are too often silenced, so that our islands no longer face the dubious distinction of being the only state without a victim-first anti-slavery law. We must unite, now, in proclaiming that exploitation will no longer be tolerated in Hawaii. Not in our communities. Not on our islands. Not anymore.”

Unfortunately, the politics of the issue appear to have killed a good bill, and Hawaii remains leagues behind the rest of the nation when it comes to dealing with sex trafficking.