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New laws target sex exploitation of children

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Legislators strengthened Hawaii laws against human trafficking this session, passing bills to criminalize solicitation of minors, make solicitation of prostitution offenses ineligible for deferred acceptance of guilty pleas and to clarify that sex and labor trafficking are reportable cases of child abuse and neglect. However, advocates say there is more to do.

Hawaii received an F in 2012 and 2011 for its lack of protections for victims of commercial sexual exploitation, as graded by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit working to end sexual slavery. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia received failing grades last year, and 24 states got F’s in 2011.

"It almost makes geopolitical sense that this would be a large human trafficking area," said Kris Coffield, legislative director for IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy group. "Because of our location in the central Pacific … everyone recognizes that this is a prime stopover, if you will, or location for individuals being trafficked in either direction."

Advocates hope that the measures passed this session will reduce demand for prostitution and provide additional services for people, especially children, coerced into sex or labor trafficking.

Coffield said Senate Bill 194, which prohibits defendants accused of solicitation of prostitution from entering deferred acceptance of guilty pleas, is one of the most exciting of the human trafficking laws to pass. Such pleas allow a defendant to have a charge erased from their record if they behave well for a specified period.

"What that means is they have to go to trial now," Coffield said, noting that high-earning defendants will be more likely to hire lawyers. "So what it does, effectively, is it makes prostitution really expensive."

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill, now Act 53, last month. It took effect upon approval.

Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 192, which establishes solicitation of a minor for prostitution as a Class C felony that carries a minimum $2,000 fine and adds the offense to the state’s list of crimes subject to the sex offender registry.

The measure also extends the statute of limitations to bring a cause of action for coercion into prostitution to six years from two and expands asset forfeiture laws to cover an increased range of solicitation offenses.

Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said there is a misconception among the public that prostitution is a choice. The average age of entry into prostitution or sex trafficking is 13, she said.

"You never see who’s controlling them in the background, and they get the blame for everything, and it’s your typical blame-the-victim phenomenon," Xian said. "And so they feel like they have no way out, and sometimes that’s proven to them in the way our flawed system works."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 40 percent of more than 2,500 human trafficking cases investigated nationwide between January 2008 and June 2010 involved the prostitution or sexual exploitation of children, while 48 percent involved the prostitution of adults.

Xian said it’s nearly impossible to determine how many child prostitutes are in Hawaii because the state’s current law regarding promoting prostitution does not distinguish among various offenses.

Victim advocates said they are also excited about a bill recognizing for the first time that minors coerced into human trafficking by strangers are victims of child abuse.

HB 1187 protects minor victims of sex and labor trafficking under the state’s Child Protective Act by amending the statutory definition of harm to include children who are victims of sex and labor trafficking and clarifying that sex and labor trafficking are reportable cases of child abuse and neglect.

"The Department of Human Services will be able to recognize them as victims," Xian said.

The fourth and final bill to combat human trafficking, House Bill 1068, requires certain employers to display a poster that provides specified information relating to human trafficking and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.

State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee, said legislators, much like the public, were at one point generally unaware of how prevalent human trafficking is in Hawaii. She said attending national conferences and talking with local advocates helped bring the issue to light.

"There’s many different organizations, I think, that have had experiences that allowed us to have meaningful legislative briefings," said Chun Oakland (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Li­liha). "And some of the folks that got involved in prostitution came forward, very bravely, to tell their stories about how they were recruited or actually tricked into these situations — sometimes by very close family members or friends."

Coffield said he hopes the next big step will be to target online advertisements for prostitution because there is no law to curtail the act.

About 300 advertisements for prostitution related to Hawaii are posted per day on the three most popular such websites, he said.

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