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‘Trafficking’ bill needs clarity

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Last year’s Legislature approved a bill aimed at setting penalties for sex trafficking only to see it vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle after prosecutors and public defenders complained that it overlapped existing laws, causing confusion. This year’s legislation, though well intentioned, is similarly flawed, so changes are needed to gain the support of law-enforcement leadership.

Proponents of the legislation point out that Hawaii is one of five states that have yet to enact laws specifically against human trafficking. They argue that the omission be ended by passing two bills, one dealing with labor trafficking and the other with sex trafficking. Both have received preliminary approval by legislative committees but without endorsement by law enforcement agencies.

Federal authorities brought charges last September in a case involving Thai workers who allegedly were exploited by being forced to work on more than a dozen farms on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. One of the bills before the Legislature would criminalize labor trafficking under state law for the first time.

Sex trafficking is attracting more attention. FBI officials told legislators last year that Honolulu ranks among the nation’s major destination cities for people wanting to solicit child prostitution. An informational briefing this month organized by Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, elicited emotional accounts, including that of a Hono-lulu teenager who told of being forced into prostitution for three months until she escaped.

A bill would create a statute entitled "Sex Trafficking" that would make sex trafficking of a person younger than 18 a Class A felony, except that such a law was enacted three years ago, without using the term "sex trafficking." Sex trafficking of those 18 or older would be a Class B felony, but state Attorney General David M. Louie points out that such a law already is on the books without the term of "trafficking."

In fact, Louie added, "confusing words" in the bill "would make it more difficult to obtain convictions than under current laws that prohibit the same conduct." Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said at the Mizuno briefing that upgrading penalties for current laws "would be more effective," but the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery insists that existing laws are ineffective.

Lingle vetoed last year’s bill because it did not "clearly define the prohibited conduct in a way that can be enforced and prosecuted in court." Her attorney general, Mark Bennett, then-city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle and the Honolulu Police Department opposed the bill.

Little if anything has changed, and proponents of the bill titled "Sex Trafficking" have yet to make the case that changes are needed and would, in fact, be an improvement. Such concerns need to be addressed and reconciled before the legislation advances.

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