The head of a national project that provides services to trafficking victims said today that a bill passed by the RI House of Representatives last month to further criminalize prostitution in the state "is likely to cause severe harm to victims of human trafficking by subjecting them to repeated arrest, incarceration, and retraumatization, without increasing the likelihood of locating, identifying, or assisting trafficking victims." That assessment was made by Andrea Ritchie, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, at a news conference attended by a number of local organizations also opposed to the legislation (H-5044A).
While concern about the existence of human trafficking in indoor sex work venues has been offered as a major justification for passage of the legislation, Ritchie said that research conducted by her organization
"indicates that raids of indoor sex work venues conducted to enforce anti-prostitution laws are extremely traumatic to victims of trafficking, and counterproductive to building the kind of relationships required for a victim to come forward and identify herself as trafficked into prostitution. Our experience, and that of other service providers, is that trafficking victims are identified after months of building trust in the offices of social service agencies providing supportive counseling, not immediately following arrest in a police station under interrogation and the threat of criminal charges."
Ritchie pointed out that the vast majority of individuals engaged in prostitution do so for survival or to meet economic needs. The bill’s imposition of fines and asset forfeitures on women, she said, will only
"further entrap them in the very dire economic straits that so often motivate them to voluntarily engage in prostitution or which render them vulnerable to trafficking in the first place. Additionally, once saddled with a criminal record, sex workers have fewer options for legal employment, and can be shut out of public housing, evicted from private housing, lose custody of their children or be denied immigration status, further increasing their vulnerability to abuse and trafficking."
Ritchie noted that to the extent that there is a need to remove a person from any situation based on a belief that they are in immediate danger, "law enforcement already possesses the power to do so under existing laws against assault, rape, coercion, kidnapping, statutory rape, among numerous other criminal provisions."
Among the local groups participating in the news conference were representatives from Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the Rhode Island National Association of Social Workers, Rhode Island National Organization for Women and the Rhode Island ACLU. The groups also released a letter from Ann Jordan, Director of the Program on Forced Labor and Trafficking in the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, which also said that the bill would "only further victimize victims."
RI NOW legislative chairperson Josephine Martell said today: "Prostitution is a complex social and political issue that cannot be solved by increasing incarceration rates for the prostitutes. These women need rehabilitation, not imprisonment and penalties."
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: "The problem in Rhode Island is not that too few prostitutes are getting arrested. To the contrary, both before trial and after sentencing, each year more women are imprisoned at the ACI for prostitution than for any other offense. The vast sums of money that will be spent prosecuting and incarcerating these women would be better spent on programs that directly address the conditions and struggles that these women face and that have led them to prostitution."
Although both the House and Senate are presently considering passing bills to strengthen the state’s current human trafficking law, the groups at the news conference expressed firm opposition to any efforts to pass the prostitution law as well.