In order to prevent what appeared to be an inevitable increase in the number of human trafficking victims to keep up with the demand for prostitutes in the U.S., state officials in Massachusetts passed a human trafficking law in 2011 that would increase penalties for those who pay for sex in Massachusetts.
But two years later, it turns out that due to inadequate resources, a lack of knowledge about the new law, and resistance to hold “johns” accountable, the law has never been used to prosecute any buyers or pimps.
Known as the Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People, the law was designed to stifle the underground sex industry by allowing prosecutors to penalize both the buyers and sellers of sex, by allowing a maximum two-and-a-half year sentence behind bars and maximum fine of $5,000 for buying sex — a misdemeanor in the New England state.
Since the law was implemented, none of the state’s 11 district attorney’s have used the law once to prosecute a single john or pimp in any sex-trafficking-related trial — no one has even been charged with the minimum $1,000 fine for sex trafficking. And it’s not because the law isn’t clearly written or strong.
Christine Raino, policy counsel at Shared Hope International, an organization that works to prevent sex trafficking, specifically trafficking of minors, said that this “extensive law” established human trafficking offenses and partly addressed the demand issue.
According to a report in the Boston Globe, the majority of cases against men arrested for enlisting the services of a prostitute since 2012 in Suffolk County, Mass., have been dismissed, reduced, or continued without guilty findings.
Even when four men allegedly attempted to solicit sex from underage girls and were arrested in a police sting in Boston, none were charged under the new law. And in that particular case, the harshest penalty for one of the accused buyers was a monthly $65 court fee for a year and instructions to watch a video that described the sex trade and how the buyers actions contribute to the growth of the industry.
Swanee Hunt, chairwoman of the Cambridge-based group Demand Abolition, which aims to fight sex trafficking by focusing on ending the demand, called it a “travesty” that the law was not being enforced, and added that “A wide range of people, including survivors, worked so hard on this legislation.”
Similarly, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who pushed for the new law, said that since the law is not being used by law enforcement, the police and public should be educated about the role buyers play in sex trafficking.
This past August, Coakley led a task force that recommended the state create a “john school” in order to increase buyers awareness for how their actions increase the demand for prostitutes, thereby fueling the annual $32 billion human trafficking industry.
In addition to the statewide “john school,” Coakley and her fellow task force members recommended law enforcement receive additional training “to ensure cases are investigated, pursued, prosecuted, and not merely dismissed.”
What do human trafficking advocates think of the “john school”?
Taryn Offenbacher, the communications director for Shared Hope International, said she thought it would be appropriate only if it was an additional consequence for a buyer. She added that replacing real consequences for a buyer with a john school is like “having someone who murdered someone take a class that teaches participants to not murder instead of going to jail.”
“If a man already has in his mind that a woman is a commodity and has been stripped of her humanity and is there for his sexual pleasure, eight hours in a class is not going to change his mind.”
According to human trafficking survivors and awareness advocates, part of the issue in the industry is that johns are not viewed as criminals, so they are often released, while pimps and prostitutes are put on trial.
Offenbacher said that one reason law enforcement struggles to prosecute buyers is because the johns often pay with cash — so there is no electronic trail — and the woman in question may not know the buyers name or recognize their faces.
“There’s such little accountability,” Offenbacher said, adding that the crime is so hidden, as is the buyer’s identity, that it’s often difficult to gather enough evidence for an investigation.
Lina Nealon, policy director of Demand Abolition, said that because prostitutes are often viewed as the problem, women are arrested more than twice as often as the men who buy their services. Nealon called this statistic a direct result of society viewing men who purchase sex differently from the girls and women who provide it.
For those survivors of the sex trade such as 30-year old Adaiah Rojas, who was recruited into prostitution when she was 16, the failure to prosecute johns is highly discouraging and a sign that there won’t be an end to human trafficking anytime soon.
“Why protect these men that are cheating on their wives, living double lives, while, me as a minor, I was labeled and put out there to be a horrible person?” said Rojas, who is a youth mentor with My Life My Choice, a Boston nonprofit group that helps young sex trafficking victims. “I was treated as a criminal. I was treated with disgust.”
A similar situation happened this past June when Lori Barron was arrested and charged with running a brothel. While Barron was prosecuted, none of her alleged clients — which included firefighters, a police officer, and city councilors — have been charged.
Jake Wark is a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office. He said that often times the courts are lenient to buyers because they are first-time offenders, but he pledged that in the future, the district attorney’s office will be more aggressive in pushing for fines against sex buyers.
Michael Shively, senior associate with the Cambridge research company Abt Associates, a supporter of Demandforum, agreed with Wark that the courts are often lenient, but added that it’s often the case because police efforts to find evidence prosecutors can use to charge a buyer are often lacking due to inadequate funding, lack of manpower, and a lack of follow-through in the court system.
Shively said prosecutors are often “less than zealous” when they get cases involving johns, and added that judges often decide to not hear misdemeanor cases when their schedules are filled with crimes that are legally considered more serious, or felonies.
“There’s plenty of frustration to go around when it comes to addressing prostitution regarding adults and child sex trafficking,” Shively said. “There are clear double standards, clear inequities.”
Not only are there inequalities in how those involved in human trafficking or prostitution cases are charged, but Nealon added that one struggle her group has is getting people to realize that prostitution is not a “victimless crime,” since most women are recruited as children and are controlled by their pimps.
She added that prostitutes often become addicted to drugs and alcohol, as they try to cope with the work they are doing, and are often assaulted by their clients and pimps.
Although human trafficking continues to be both a global and national issue, Offenbacher says there are a lot of indicators that show America as a whole is moving in a direction that is responding appropriately to the crime.
She said that in 2011 when Shared Hope International evaluated every state on their laws related to trafficking minors domestically, 26 received an “F,” but in 2013 those receiving an “F” fell to six.
Additionally, 29 states raised a grade from last year — eight states by two grades — and for the first time ever, three states received an “A” rating: Louisiana, Tennessee and Washington state.
For its law, Massachusetts was the most improved state in Shared Hope International’s 2012 ratings, Raino said, especially since the law is not gender specific and includes a heightened penalty for buyers engaging in sexual conduct with a minor.
Although Massachusetts held the title as most improved in 2012, Raino says that this law is not necessarily model legislation, since it could be argued that some states have gone much farther in terms of the penalties johns receive for buying sex with a minor.
“There really is a range of response states have to deal with demand,” she said. “That is the problem that needs to be addressed.”
Offenbacher agreed and added: “Nearly every state in the nation has been improving its legislative remarks,” and that it’s a testament to the fact that while the demand for prostitutes will never fully go away, it can be decreased.
“There’s always going to be a vulnerability and someone willing to exploit it,” Offenbacher said. “Our goal is to make exploiting that [vulnerability] as dangerous as possible, with strict penalties that law enforcement knows how to use.”