The Loophole is Closed

The Governor signed a law making prostitution illegal in Rhode Island, indoors or outdoors. I opposed this, but I hope I was wrong. I hope that Rep. Giannini and Prof. Donna Hughes and all those who conflated trafficking and prostitution are vindicated in their belief that this is the way to end the harm done to women and children by pimps and johns. I hope I’m wrong in my fear that this will drive the trade underground and drive the most desperate people further from help.

It all depends on how the law is used. So all of you who said your goal was to stop abuse–your work has just begun.

Providence Journal coverage here.

Where No One’s Looking

The Rhode Island legislature is moving to ban indoor prostitution. The most likely result will be arrests at the spas.  In police raids the women picked up are adults. They say they are in it for the money. Real trafficking is harder to find than through the doors of a storefront. If we want to fight trafficking, especially of children, we should be looking in the parks and under the highway overpass. The New York Times has a 2-part series this week on runaway children…

Around the country, outreach workers and city officials say they have been overwhelmed with requests for help from young people in desperate straits.

In Berks County, Pa., the shortage of beds for runaways has led county officials to consider paying stipends to families willing to offer their couches. At drop-in centers across the country, social workers describe how runaways regularly line up when they know the food pantry is being restocked.

In Chicago, city transit workers will soon be trained to help the runaways and other young people they have been finding in increasing numbers, trying to escape the cold or heat by riding endlessly on buses and trains.

Part 2 describes how girls are pressured to trade sex for shelter and affection, and then induced to work as prostitutes. Getting them out of that life can’t be done with just arrest. Sgt. Byron A. Fassett is one officer who works with girls at risk…

In 2005, Sergeant Fassett created the “High Risk Victim” unit in the Dallas Police Department, which flags any juvenile in the city who runs away from home four or more times in a given year. About 200 juveniles per year fit that description. If one of those children is picked up by the police anywhere in the country, the child is directed back to Sergeant Fassett’s unit, which immediately begins investigating the juvenile’s background.

The unit’s strength is timing. If the girls are arrested for prostitution, they are at their least cooperative. So the unit instead targets them for such minor offenses as truancy or picks them up as high-risk victims, speaking to them when their guard is down. Only later, as trust builds, do officers and social workers move into discussions of prostitution.

Repeat runaways are not put in juvenile detention but in a special city shelter for up to a month, receiving counseling.

Three quarters of the girls who get treatment do not return to prostitution.

Closing the loophole will not make the problem go away. To protect children and other vulnerable people takes commitment of time and money, and success is measured one child at a time. Do we have treatment for children that will keep them away from predators and pimps? Rescue by arrest hasn’t wiped out prostitution in other states. What will make Rhode Island different?

Change the Mission, Declare Victory, Move On

Three years ago a gathering of diverse groups and individuals formed the Coalition Against Human Trafficking. A year of work resulted in a bill against trafficking persons, and proposed amendments being debated in the legislature would strengthen that bill to offer better protections to minors.

The law sits unused. In hard financial times, with a Governor who has declared illegal immigrants to be the cause of all the state’s problems, where is the political will to rescue victims?

Much easier to go after the ‘spas’–the most visible face of prostitution in Rhode Island. It has worried me from the first that the workers in them– almost always female and Asian, had no voice in the effort to ‘rescue’ them. Now they are speaking, but too late. They are about to be put outside the law. Some of our legislators who have taken much unfair criticism for not ‘closing the loophole’ met with women to hear their opinions firsthand.

A woman who later identified herself only as Jasmine was among the most vocal.

Through a translator, she said she fell into prostitution three years ago after answering a newspaper ad.

“I was very hungry. That’s why I started,” said Jasmine, a petite woman of “older than 40” who wore a Ralph Lauren winter coat and now works at a Providence spa. “It’s better than stealing, or breaking the law. This is a way of life. There are people dependent on this.”

As Sunday’s meeting progressed, a collective sense of fear and frustration grew as the women realized an unwelcome political reality.

Many had hoped for a compromise that would protect them from jail. Jasmine suggested increased taxes on spas.

“For reasons that are hard for me to understand, the legislation is more harsh than we would like for the women,” Segal responded. “There’s still a small chance that the severity could be lessened… But you need to understand that’s a small chance.”

So it’s a case of bait and switch. We wanted to prosecute trafficking, we wanted to stop crimes like extortion, fraud, threats, kidnapping, rape and murder. Heinous crimes that urgently need to be prosecuted. Instead we get a law to arrest women.

There will be very few arrests of customers, because it will be almost impossible to prove the crime. When the city of Providence wanted to stop streetwalking, it was relatively simple to have undercover policewomen identify men who solicited them for sex. They didn’t have to entrap. These losers were cruising around bothering everyone. That’s why they were a nuisance.

But how on earth are they going to prove that a man solicits for sex indoors? Nope. They’re going to arrest some women and make a lot of lawyers richer.

The website of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking (RICAHT) hasn’t been updated since April. However, Happy Endings reports that RICAHT members were at the meeting to speak with the women. Prof. Donna Hughes started a splinter organization called Citizens Against Trafficking , allegedly because RICAHT didn’t support making prostitution illegal.

Meanwhile, real crimes of forced labor and forced prostitution are committed against those who have the least power to seek the protection of the law.

Polaris Project, a national organization against trafficking is active in Rhode Island, and they are working on behalf of victims, with many success stories. There are other advocacy organizations that reach out to people where they are, and quietly save lives. They will still be here when the moral crusade has declared victory and moved on.

Providence Daily Dose also covered the meeting.

Rhode Island’s Future has some constructive ideas on how to help trafficking victims.

In a related post on things no one should have to sell, ‘Desperately Selling a Kidney’. There’s always profit in finding new ways to use poor people as a human resource.

A Loophole We Should Close

I’m with Rep. Joanne Giannini on closing the loophole that allows minors under the age of 18 to work in strip clubs.

Since there are already many regulations that restrict the kind of work and hours of work that can be done by minors, a law should be easier to pass than one that applies to adults.

Protecting adults from their own choices is problematic, but children unquestionably do need protection until they reach the age of majority.

Tara Hurley makes the excellent point on her blog that the 16 year old girl who was found working in a Providence strip club was a victim of human trafficking. We have a brand-new shiny law passed in 2007 to prosecute this kind of crime. Will this be the test case?