Editorial: Progress Against Prostitution

01:00 AM EST on Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The Providence Journal

Rhode Island’s law against indoor prostitution seems to be doing exactly what we had hoped: Giving police the tools to go after major operations and put a crimp in the abomination of human trafficking. That should make it harder, in particular, for pimps to abuse vulnerable young women ­ including those from other countries and teen runaways.

Until Governor Carcieri signed the bill into law, in November 2009, Rhode Island was the only state that permitted indoor prostitution (aside from some rural counties in Nevada). Monied interests tried to keep legalized prostitution alive, and the General Assembly balked for years at changing the law. It took tremendous public pressure, from Journal editorial writers and others, to force through a change.

Former state Rep. Joanne Giannini (D.-Providence), who led the fight along with University of Rhode Island Prof. Donna Hughes and state police Supt. Brendan Doherty, believes the new law has done what it was supposed to do.

Critics feared that it would give police the opportunity to hassle mostly poor and drug-dependent women. But it protected these women by making prostitution a misdemeanor that can be expunged from the record. Indeed, the punishments for customers are harsher than for prostitutes.

What the law did was take aim at human trafficking, such as the exploitation of Asian women who were far from home and unable to speak English, and forced to serve as virtual sex slaves. Immediately after the passage of the law, many of the “spa”/brothels shut down and strip joints began policing prostitution on their premises.

Since then, police have rightly focused on big cases:

In December 2009, they arrested six women and eight men in an operation aimed at spas in Providence, Warwick and Johnston.

In February 2010, Providence police targeted spas on Smithfield Avenue and South Main Street.

In November 2010, two New York men who the police say came to Rhode Island because of the old law were arrested on charges of human trafficking. Police said two 23-year-old men from New York enslaved teenagers as young as 16 and put them to work as prostitutes in an Elmhurst apartment. One was charged with raping one of the prostitutes.

That same month, the state police, with the help of Providence police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shut down a brothel operating from an apartment in the Hartford neighborhood that was allegedly attracting 50 to 100 customers per day.

Such actions will never eliminate prostitution, which will continue as long as there are people. But they do signal to pimps and slave traffickers that Rhode Island is no longer a safe haven for their brutal activities. This has, without question, hampered an activity that does horrific damage to vulnerable people.

Rhode Island was right to stand up and say: no more.

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