The latest attempt to ban sex trafficking in Hawaii would treat minors who engage in sex work differently than adults in the industry. The bill became a priority for lawmakers after they heard stories about girls being recruited into the sex trade at local schools.
Advocates have been pushing to ban sex trafficking in Hawaii for a decade. But bills before the Legislature have failed after prosecutors said they need the leverage of charging prostitutes so they will testify against their pimps.
“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s happening in our community,” said Rep. Della Au Bellatti, who co-introduced the bill. “We can’t turn a blind eye to it anymore.”
This year’s bill — HB1902 — would decriminalize prostitution for those under age 18, with the aim of treating minors as victims. For adults, exchanging sex for money would be a petty misdemeanor, but for minors it would be a violation.
The proposed change is part of a national movement to treat minors in the sex trade as victims, offering services and help instead of criminal charges.
“There’s no such thing as a child prostitute,” said Christine Raino, director of public policy for Shared Hope International, nonprofit organization dedicated to ending sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. “Any child who’s engaged in commercial sex should be recognized as a victim and not be criminalized for that victimization.”
Nationwide, the average age of entry into the sex trade is about 13 years old, advocates say.
Lowering penalties for minors forced into sex trafficking could have the impact of giving younger, willing sex workers a competitive advantage, said Tracy Ryan, executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii. “I’m less likely to go to jail if I’m a minor, so I have an advantage over an adult doing the same type of work, which is not what we want,” Ryan said.
Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro opposed the bill, arguing that pimps could use the law change as a way to recruit minors. “In the attempt to protect the minors, you have the unexpected consequences of actually hurting them” he said.
Kaneshiro, who successfully lobbied Gov. David Ige last year to veto a bill banning sex trafficking, said if the portion of the bill decriminalizing prostitution for minors was removed, he would support it. “If the minors are not charged with prostitution, there’s no way they’re going to cooperate,” Kaneshiro said in an interview.
That hasn’t been the case in states that that treat people forced into prostitution as victims, said Kris Coffield, executive director of Imua Alliance, a Hawaii-based organization that helps sex trafficking victims. “The number of cases go up because victims feel safe about telling lawyers, telling prosecutors, telling police, what happened,” Coffield said.
There are about 150 brothels in Hawaii and about 1,500 to 2,500 sex trafficking victims in the state every year, he said.
“Sex trafficking in Hawaii is in my opinion far worse than on the mainland,” said Coffield, citing the state’s large tourism industry, military population and geographic position between the mainland and Asia. “This is a haven for sexual slavery.”