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The Supreme Court just gutted Roe v. More state bans are on the way. Jess and Imani on their weekly podcast as they help you make sense of the chaos. The State of Rhode Island seems poised to take a ificant step backwards on its legal treatment of both sex work and trafficking when legislators their session this fall. Local advocates expect that lawmakers will reconcile two bills, House Bill A and Senate Bill A, both of which would institute criminal penalties for consensual commercial sexual exchanges which take place indoors.

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Failing that, the Mayor of Providence, David N. Cicilline, wants to issue an Executive Order that would do the same when the City Council reconvenes in September. In the early s, Rhode Island criminalized virtually all sex outside of marriage.

In their haste to amend the statute to bring it into compliance with the federal Constitution, Rhode Island legislators inadvertently cut out provisions specifically criminalizing solicitation, leaving only the language criminalizing street-based prostitution. No one noticed for about 20 years, while arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for indoor prostitution continued.

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A few years ago an enterprising defense attorney started successfully moving to dismiss charges relating to consensual commercial sexual exchanges taking place indoors, on the grounds that such conduct was not, in fact, illegal under the Rhode Island law. Since then, there have been increasingly vocal calls to recriminalize indoor prostitution. Up until recently, such efforts were largely unsuccessful.

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Advocates for the legislation claimed that it is absolutely necessary to criminalize all forms of prostitution in order to fight trafficking in persons. The letter went on to state:. In our experience, the criminalization of prostitution forces women, men and transgender [people] who engage in commercial sex to the margins, away from service providers and advocates who could help them.

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The Move Along report released in [by D. Unfortunately when sex workers went to the police to receive help, the pervasive stigma and discrimination bolstered by laws prohibiting prostitution meant that police officers often dismissed these calls for help, failed to respond appropriately or at times arrested those in need of assistance.

The reality is that such a measure is likely to cause severe harm to victims of human trafficking by subjecting them to repeated arrest, incarceration, and retraumatization, without increasing the likelihood of locating, identifying, or assisting trafficking victims. In reality, existing federal and state anti-trafficking laws, as well as existing criminal provisions against kidnapping, extortion, assault, rape, and indentured servitude, give state and federal law enforcement and prosecutors a panoply of tools to pursue those who harm people who are engaged in prostitution without collateral damage to victims of trafficking.

After all, labor trafficking can be — and is — prosecuted without criminalizing picking tomatoes, domestic work, or waiting tables in a restaurant.

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F ederal anti-trafficking law also prohibits and severely punishes inducing a minor into prostitution, even where no force, fraud or coercion is used, regardless of the status of state laws. Some claimed that police need to be able to arrest trafficking victims in order to be able to get them away from traffickers and help them.

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Law professor Ann Jordan, Director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University Washington College of Law points out that blanket arrests of people engaged in prostitution in the hopes of encouraging trafficking victims to come forward and testify against their traffickers has the effect of using a blunt instrument where careful, well-informed surgical strikes are needed. According to Moossy, the fight against human trafficking requires the voluntary cooperation of victims, obtained by building trust over the long term and offering much needed support to overcome fear of retaliation by traffickers, and by addressing the circumstances that render victims vulnerable to coercion.

One of the primary findings of our report was that focusing on enforcement of prostitution statutes to address human trafficking has led to the identification of very few victims of trafficking into prostitution. Even more disturbingly, it can contribute to further traumatizing and isolating them.

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Trafficked women reported that they were repeatedly arrested, in some cases up to ten times, in police raids on brothels and other sex work venues, convicted of prostitution, and even sentenced to jail without ever being identified as trafficked. Their experiences were corroborated by interviews with service providers who had worked with hundreds of trafficking victims over the years.

What level of evidence do you need? You need a victim to be willing to open up and tell you. Much has been made of the fact that the House Bill would allow people who have been trafficked to assert an affirmative defense to prostitution charges.

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However, Jordan points out that the availability of an affirmative defense is not a suitable answer to the concern that the proposed legislation would lead to arrests of trafficking victims:. Who would help these women collect this evidence? The vast majority of the women will be represented by public defenders who have very limited capacity and time and little funding to mount a lengthy and complicated defense based on trafficking.

Most prostitution cases are moved quickly through the system and most public defenders spend very little time with their clients and build the kind of trust required for a victim of trafficking to disclose her situation.

Criminalizing Sex Work to Combat Trafficking: Rhode Island Considers the Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem

Thus, it is highly probable that the overwhelming majority of victims of trafficking would be arrested and prosecuted multiple times for prostitution under the proposed bill without ever being recognized as victims. Once the notion that legislation criminalizing indoor prostitution was required to address trafficking in persons was largely debunked in the media, the real motivation behind the bills, and particularly the House legislation, became apparent — punishing women who engage in prostitution.

However, in the end, neither piece of legislation is likely to have much of an impact on the incidence of prostitution. As Jordan says:.

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Many women who engage in prostitution do so for reasons of economic insecurity or substance abuse. They would not legally qualify as trafficking victims but may qualify as victims of any of other crimes.

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The bill would saddle these women with a criminal record, cause them to forfeit their limited assets, and go into debt to the state, all of which would have the effect of making it even more difficult for them to leave prostitution and find alternate employment. Women in prostitution need nonjudgmental support and assistance, not arrest detention and prosecution.

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We wish to reduce the unnecessary incarceration of sex workers that this bill proposes, because we believe that this actually increases the likelihood that they will return to prostitution. There is little question that criminalization of prostitution decreases choices available to people engaged in sex work rather than increasing their options to leave the industry or a trafficking situation. Fines and asset forfeitures only further entrap women in the very dire economic straits that so often motivate them to voluntarily engage in prostitution or which render them vulnerable to trafficking or coercion in the first place.

Additionally, once saddled with a criminal record, sex workers have fewer options for legal employment, and can be shut out of public housing, evicted from private housing, lose custody of their children or be denied immigration status, further increasing their vulnerability to abuse and trafficking.

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In short, being arrested for prostitution increases the likelihood that people will be pushed by circumstance or coerced into continuing to engage in prostitution as their only option for survival. Brown concludes:.

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If the legislature wants to seriously address prostitution, it should address poverty, cuts in the education budget, a lack of affordable housing and a shortage of mental health and addiction treatment services…. Much of the impetus for the bill has arisen from a concern that Rhode Island is the only place in the U. However, in this respect, Rhode Island finds itself on the cutting edge of a growing trend towards recognition that arrests of sex workers ultimately help no one.

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Weitzer states:. By continuing with this enlightened approach, Rhode Island would by no means stand alone.

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For instance, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in Nor would maintaining the status quo turn Rhode Island into a haven for sex trafficking. A government commission in New Zealand found no link between the decriminalization of the sex industry and human trafficking. But they should examine successful approaches to human trafficking rather than repeat the mistakes of the past by penalizing its victims.


If Rhode Island is serious about combating trafficking in persons, Jordan makes the following recommendations:. A more cost-effective, targeted approach to the issue would be to ensure that state law includes 1 trafficking into forced labor, slavery, servitude and debt bondage in order to ensure that people trafficked into farms, factories, homes, streets, brothels and other sites are protected, 2 state-funded services for victims so that NGOs can provide the type of support discussed by Moossy for safe and healthy survivors, and 3 ample funding and training for law enforcement to be able to carry out the type of investigations recommended by Moossy.

Hopefully, when Rhode Island legislators come back in session after the summer break they will find the courage to go forward, not backward, in the fight against human trafficking by strengthening state anti-trafficking legislation rather than rushing to judgment and enact ing legislation that would expand penalties for prostitution that will ultimately have the effect of punishing victims of trafficking and other crimes, and pushing them further from help.

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