PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Less than two years ago it would have been perfectly legal to offer a sex act in exchange for $40 at the Daily Spa in Pawtucket, just the way a woman recently did to a Target 12 producer working undercover.
Until November 2009, indoor prostitution was legal in only two places in the U.S.: Rhode Island and rural Nevada. That changed here when Gov. Donald Carcieri signed legislation outlawing the practice and increasing the penalties for human trafficking.
"The bottom line is, commercial sex is now clearly illegal," Rhode Island State Police Col. Brendan Doherty declared at the signing ceremony.
The new law's impact was felt immediately. Many Asian "spas" shut down and strip clubs moved to reign in prostitution, according to law enforcement. A number of others that did not close have been raided – though officials acknowledge they are still figuring out how to use their new authority. And last fall, two New York men were charged in the state's first human trafficking case.
Former state Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Providence, who sponsored the law with fellow Providence Democrat Sen. Paul Jabour, cited that landmark case as a sign the legislation was making a difference. "I think it's been a deterrent," she told WPRI.com.
Giannini and Jabour won key support from Doherty, who believed the old loophole made it easier for young women to be victimized and sent the wrong message to young people here. He's also pleased with its implementation, according to Lisa Holley, legal counsel for the state police.
"While there's really no way to measure the volume previous to the law passing and now, he thinks it has made a dent in that clandestine industry and he thinks it has sent a message to young, vulnerable people that they recognize that [prostitution] is illegal," Holley said.
Penalties for customers, landlords
The new law eliminated a loophole in state law described by one activist as "a human rights disaster," which allowed individuals to sell sex anywhere so long as they do so indoors, whether at spas and strip clubs or brothels and private homes.
The law made it a misdemeanor to sell or buy sexual services. Prostitutes face fines of $250 to $1,000 and up to six months in prison for first offenses; for customers, fines are the same but a prison sentence can be up to a year. Convicted prostitutes can ask a judge to expunge their records after one year; customers cannot.
In addition, landlords who "knowingly" allow prostitution to take place on their properties can face fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences of up to five years for first offenses.
The goal of the law was to make it harder for individuals to be coerced into selling their bodies, not to stamp out the world's oldest profession here, Giannini said. "Prostitution will always exist," she said. "My main goal, from the beginning, was [to target] the trafficking."
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin's office does not keep statewide statistics on prostitution arrests because it's a misdemeanor handled by municipal solicitors, spokeswoman Amy Kempe said.
The new law "gave the law enforcement officers the tools to enter the location, speak with the women involved, and push to go after pimps, not prostitutes," Kempe said. "It opens up the human trafficking side of things."
Sex sold legally by accident
State lawmakers apparently did not intend to make Rhode Island a legal safe haven for indoor prostitution when they did so in 1980 while amending the law to reduce prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The apparent error did not become an issue until almost two decades later, when the R.I. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the rewritten act no longer explicitly outlawed prostitution itself. Five years later, a judge dismissed indoor charges against several people rounded up in a police raid at an alleged Providence "spa" based on the court's ruling.
In the years that followed, disagreements over how to proceed stymied efforts to outlaw indoor prostitution again. Civil libertarians argued the state should not regulate what individuals do behind closed doors, and some expressed concern about whether trafficking victims would be turned into criminals.
The House and Senate passed competing bills in the spring of 2009 and looked set to leave the issue unresolved again until the so-called "Craigslist killing" the following summer turned the tide.
Attorneys for the two chambers, the state police and the attorney general's office spent the summer hammering out compromise language, and on Nov. 3 Carcieri signed the law making indoor prostitution a misdemeanor.
Raids follow new law's passage
Before the law passed, police estimated more than three dozen spas and other venues for indoor prostitution were in operation around Rhode Island. Not all of them closed down after the change of policy.
In December, a month after the law passed, Rhode Island State Police arrested six women and eight men following a sting operation targeting spas in Providence, Warwick and Johnston. In February, Providence Police conducted the department's first raid, targeting two spas on Smithfield Avenue and South Main Street.
Another major bust occurred last November, when state police said they shut down a brothel that had been attracting as many as 100 customers a daily in Providence's Hartford neighborhood. The six-month investigation also included Providence Police and special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Later that month, two 23-year-old New Yorkers were charged with bringing teenagers to Rhode Island to work as prostitutes. One of the two men was accused of raping a victim, as well.
"We're seeing that these women, all of them are not doing this willingly, and those are the women that I wanted to protect," Giannini said. "I feel like with what we're seeing, we've proved that we needed the law. So I feel vindication."
"If it's done one thing, it's acted number one as a deterrent," and also helped law enforcement protect victims of trafficking, she said. "I think it's been successful in these two years."
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