Hawaii Prostitution Law a First in Fight for Trafficking Victims

“The doors will be opened to those who are bold enough to knock.” —Tony Gaskins

Last week, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to remove a requirement that a person prove they were a sex trafficking victim to have a prostitution conviction expunged. In addition to removing what Gov. David Ige termed an “unrealistic” requirement of proof, the legislation he signed reduces the precondition time-limit, allowing individuals that avoid additional convictions to motion to vacate their conviction after three years rather than six.

The law is a milestone for victims of sex trafficking, who may fear retaliation from a pimp or buyer if they were to come forward to law enforcement. Language barriers and economic dependence may also prevent victims from identifying themselves.

According to the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, survivors reported that the burden of a criminal record can make it difficult to find employment, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will be re-trafficked. In fact, the average number of attempts a person made to exit the sex trade in Hawaii was 5.8 times.

Tammy Bitanga, who at 15 was trafficked in Waikiki by an older boyfriend, says that with a conviction “You have this thing stuck on you. And then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, the only job I’m going to get is to go back to that life. Because I’m already there.’”

In their testimony in opposition to the bill, the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, City and County of Honolulu warns that the legislation would “discount the distinction between victims of sex trafficking and ‘actual’ prostitution offenders.” However, as the Commission emphasizes, the line between victim and offender is easily blurred. In their study of sex trafficking in Hawaii, they report that 80 percent of individuals initially trafficked into the sex trade, eventually prostituted themselves without a trafficker at some point.

This reality is not surprising when considered along with another one of their discoveries: For those initiated by a trafficker, the average amount of time spent in the sex trade in Hawaii totaled 13 years. Trafficking is a particular problem in the state due to a large tourism industry and military presence.

Anita S. Teekah, executive director of the anti-trafficking program for the nonprofit Safe Horizon, says of the legislation:

"Passage of this new law now allows our clients and all individuals, whether they have been sex trafficked or not, to access basic resources such as housing, sustainable economic and vocational opportunities needed to develop self-empowerment and reduce the risk of re-trafficking. This is a good first step to ensuring justice and a path forward for the most vulnerable and criminalized in our society."

In Illinois, Catalyst seeks to raise awareness for those most vulnerable, with the hope that other states will follow in the footsteps of Hawaii’s lawmakers.

—Maggie

Proverbs 31: 8-9