The city’s top prosecutor is urging Gov. David Ige to veto a bill that would ban sex trafficking in Hawaii.
The bill, which was passed unanimously by the Legislature, seeks to create a victim-centered approach to dealing with those who are forced into prostitution, instead of treating prostitutes as criminals.
It aims to strengthen penalties for coercing victims into performing sex for money, and would create a statewide witness protection program for sex trafficking victims.
But defining all prostitutes as victims could be problematic for prosecutors, who have convinced prostitutes to testify against pimps by promising to drop charges, said Keith Kaneshiro, prosecuting attorney for the city and county of Honolulu.
"The prostitutes who come forward and testify against the pimps, we’ll treat them as victims," Kaneshiro said in an interview with the Associated Press.
"There are some prostitutes engaging in prostitution willingly, and how do we know the difference?" Kaneshiro said. "If you don’t testify, we don’t know if you’re a victim."
That approach is exactly what victims’ advocates have been trying to change. Those that are forced into prostitution are often too scared to testify, because they’ve been threatened by the pimp, or they fear retaliation, said Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.
"That’s a really horrible way of deciphering who is a victim and who is not," Xian said. "There are a lot of reasons for victims to not want to test against their abusers."
Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, who introduced the bill, disagreed with Kaneshiro’s view of prostitution, arguing that most prostitutes don’t have a choice about their profession. Chun Oakland recounted stories about homeless gay, lesbian and transgender youth who supported themselves on the streets after being kicked out of their homes, and another about a girl who, after meeting up with her cousin’s friends, was drugged and forced into prostitution.
"They took her and they said if she does anything they would kill her family," Chun Oakland said. "Tell me if that is a choice."
Chun Oakland had her own letter hand-delivered Ige’s office Tuesday urging passage of the bill.
Hawaii is the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a sex trafficking ban written into its laws. But Kaneshiro the state already has laws that ban forcing people into prostitution — it just doesn’t use the term "sex trafficking" in the law, Kaneshiro said.
"The current law is sufficient," Kaneshiro said.
Five years ago, prosecuting pimps was extremely rare in Honolulu. But since Hawaii’s human trafficking law was passed in 2011, prosecutors have brought 19 cases against 22 defendants, sending 7 people to prison.
"We got prison terms on these people," Kaneshiro said. "In making these cases, we made deals with the prostitutes. We treated them as victims, because they decided to cooperate."
Kaneshiro says the bill would make it more difficult to prosecute pimps, because language in the bill lists a number of elements that can be used to prove a person is guilty of sex trafficking. But a side-by-side comparison of the bill and the current law doesn’t substantiate the claim that prosecutors would have more to prove, Xian said.
"I disagree with him, and I think he’s misleading the public," Xian said. "I don’t know where he can really justify his claim that adding more elements for prosecutors to use at their disposal makes it harder to prove a crime."
There is a witness protection program for those that testify against pimps, but it’s currently not funded in the budget, Kaneshiro said. The city is working on opening a family justice center to provide secure housing, treatment and counseling to those who testify against criminals, and it’s expected to open in2015, Kaneshiro said.
Those that testify will be offered immunity and receive help with immigration problems and finding jobs, Kaneshiro said.
"We’re going to help them and try to get them started on a new life," Kaneshiro said.