Hawaii’s New Sex Trafficking Bill Over Reaches the Mark

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Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY TRACY RYAN – HB 240 that aimed at cracking down at “sex trafficking” may be the worst bill I have seen signed into law in the seventeen years I have been following the legislature.  It is an example of finding the scariest example of some activity and improperly generalizing it to create fear.


Then that fear allows a wide sweep of legislation that attacks many harmless people. Jim Dooley’s report (Hawaii Reporter June 24) skims lightly over the “lesser related” offenses that are now class B felonies. These include managing or supervising more than two sex workers who are adults and under no threat of coercion. It also includes receiving a tip from a sex worker for sending her a client.

These acts now will receive ten year prison terms. To make this point as clear as possible these are consensual acts between adults.  Many people do not believe they should even be illegal.  The rationales for this bill went into great detail about the need to increase penalties for abusive pimps who control women and or prostitute children. No explanation was given in the legislation as to why a desire to address this situation could not be accomplished without toughening up sentences for the lesser crimes noted above.

Without this horrible and unneeded addition to the bill it could have gone through without major objection from those of us who champion individual liberty. It should be pointed out that even the less objectionable portions of the bill were not based on a firm understanding of the problems to be addressed or how best to solve them.

These other provisions included adding an ambiguous “fraud” element to the crime, increasing penalties for people who are unarguably criminals, creating a witness protection program for prostitutes to testify against pimps and traffickers, and adding in a habitual solicitation component aimed at johns.  Of the four the increased penalties focus on appealing to anger stirred up about the crime involved.

The focus is on the group of men who abuse and control women in the sex industry; informally referred to as pimps and traffickers.  Since there are probably less than twenty people in Hawaii at any one time that might be guilty of this and the chances of anyone of them being convicted and sentences under the new Class A (20 years in prison statute) are minimal this is not a big issue.

What one must realize is that the cost to the taxpayers of increasing one convict’s sentence from ten years to a twenty is at least $400,000. Put in perspective a good outreach program aimed at providing social services to sex industry workers and helping those ready to move out of that career could survive for two years on this money and help dozens of people. I am aware of four good professional organizations that provide direct services to Hawaii’s sex workers today.

They are the Youth Outreach Program, The CHOW project, The Life Foundation, and Kulia Na Mamo.  A reduction in potential funding for such organizations needs to be weighed against the satisfaction some seem to get by knowing a pimp will now serve twenty years rather than the ten years in jail he would have under former law.

The creation of the witness protection program creates no direct harm in and of itself. If it aids in convicting violent offenders it is a boon. However, the entire argument that sex workers won’t testify against their pimps due to fear of retaliation does not hold up well in relation to the experiences recounted by people with years working with these situations.  In the five years that the Reverend Pam Vessels ran her residential facility for persons exiting the sex industry only one pimp showed up to make trouble. He left after Pam asked him to without any violence against this unarmed middle aged women.

This is not to excuse the behavior of pimps, but to point out that the reason most sex workers will not testify is due to the fact that they don’t see what the pimp has done in the same negative light as the radical feminists who have pushed the anti-trafficking, prostitution equals slavery agenda.  The pimp and prostitutes generally make up a kind of surrogate family with loyalties to each other and a distrust of anyone else.

After leaving such a family and becoming a client of a help agency this attachment slowly switches to the agency. One of the problems then is with agencies whose sworn agenda is to demonize pimps. The clients of such agencies take on that mentality and will become its greatest advocates. The agency replaces the place the pimp once held in their lives. That is to say an agency that provides food, shelter, clothing, counseling, job training, etc.

They ask little in return and rapidly gain the same intense loyalty from such women as they once gave to their pimps. The fact that these now former sex workers will happily speak at public forums or to media telling a version of exploitation that neatly fits the political agenda of this agency should give pause.

The habitual john component makes a john with two prior convictions in the past five years subject to a year in jail, versus the old thirty day term, upon a third conviction.  This is added in on the unsubstantiated claim that all prostitution is slavery and therefore johns are violators of women. Since the assumption is obvious nonsense to anyone with real experience with these issues I will say no more about its rationales. I will point out that johns are almost never repeat offenders.

Nor does this theory of ending the “demand” address the potential consequences of ending the money stream that persons working in the sex industry currently receive.  This section of HB 240 is made almost redundant by the concurrent passage of HB 44 which will make almost all johns convicted on Oahu subject to a year in jail from the first offense on.

No example was provided in the rationale for HB 240 as to when and how the “fraud” component was to come into play. I can only comment that someone who tricks you into doing something may not be in the same criminal class as someone who uses violence and force.

This whole approach seems based on a desire to address social problems with expensive law enforcement and punishment without regard to how these problems develop or how intelligent harm reduction policies might be more effective in the long run.

Tracy Ryan is the former head of the Hawaii Libertarian Party and actively involved in sex trafficking and prostitution issues impacting Hawaii.





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