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Senate panel weighs bill to help local victims of sex trafficking

    Kathryn Xian, right, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, and Honolulu prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro, left, answer questions by lawmakers on Friday.

Brittany Duncan was 14 years old when she fell in love with an older man. But in a matter of months, what she thought was a relationship turned into a nightmare.

"He beat me, I was raped, I was stabbed, I was starved, I was locked in rooms for weeks on end," Duncan told a panel of Hawaii lawmakers on Friday.

"I would be forced to have sex with so many people in one day that I would faint from exhaustion, I would vomit from overheating," Duncan continued, "and I was so scared because he was threatening my friends and family that I would never tell anyone what was going on."

Duncan, a 24-year-old survivor advocate with the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, shared her story Friday with the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor as the panel considered a bill that would create a victim-centered approach to prosecuting sex trafficking.

The bill aims to strengthen the penalties for coercing victims into performing sex for money, and it would include sex trafficking on the list of violent crimes for which victims could be eligible for criminal injury compensation. It also would replace the words "promoting prostitution" with "sex trafficking" in the law and would raise the maximum fine for promoting prostitution from $10,000 to $50,000.

Activists said that Hawaii is one of only two states that do not have a comprehensive sex trafficking law.

"What is happening behind the facade of paradise is quite honestly nauseating," said Tiare Lando, who holds the title Mrs. Oahu International and runs a mentoring program for girls called Glam.

Hawaii has a law that addresses labor trafficking, but "when it came to the sex trade, we basically were shut down over and over again," said Kathryn Xian, executive director for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery. "You have to basically decide as lawmakers in this state that yes … there is a problem of the selling of women and children for sex against their will," Xian said.

The average age of people getting into the commercial sex trade is 13 years old, said Judith Wilhoite, family advocate for Family Programs Hawaii. "Do the math. That means there’s young girls being forced into this," Wilhoite said.

The Honolulu Police Department and the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney for the City and County of Honolulu both opposed the bill, citing problems with the use of the term sex trafficking.

"The term should be reserved for the most serious offenses," said Captain Jason Kawabata of the Honolulu Police Department’s narcotics and vice division. In other words, not all pimps who are promoting prostitution are forcing prostitutes to perform against their will.

"The statute is working right now," said Keith Kaneshiro, prosecuting attorney. "We are prosecuting cases. We are successful in the cases that we prosecute. So why change the statute in the middle of what we’re doing right now?"

Sen. Will Espero said the Legislature isn’t trying to change the way prosecutors approach the problem.

"We’re looking at this definition of sex trafficking, which is an international problem, and seeing how can Hawaii put a little dent or a big dent into this problem … and protect our children," Espero said. "I’m amazed at the opposition to this."

The committee postponed making a decision on the bill until March 3.

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