Gianinni: Despite Progress, More Can Be Done To Stop Human Trafficking

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It’s hard to believe that it has already been nine years since the General Assembly passed laws to ban human trafficking and indoor prostitution.  Many people do not know the history of these two bills and just how important they are to Rhode Island.  

It seems to be an all too common occurrence now. We watch newscasts where sex predators are trafficking underage girls here for prostitution. It’s hard to believe, but our little state continues to be a haven for sex trafficking.

In 2007, I introduced the first piece of legislation to ban human trafficking in the House of Representatives–a disgusting practice.

Young girls were being brought here to work in Asian massage parlors. They were promised lives of good fortune, careers and bright futures, but instead they were forced to live in one room apartments. They were cooking on sterno ovens and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. The living conditions were deplorable.   

Pimps and managers were making plenty of money on the backs of these young girls.  

Deplorable Conditions

The first bill to ban Human Trafficking passed the House of Representatives. Yet it failed to pass in  the Senate.

I also filed a bill to ban indoor prostitution which, surprisingly, met great opposition in the General Assembly.

I was accused of trying to stop women from making a living and targeting women unfairly. That was never my intent. My intent was to stop a growing cancer that is sex trafficking.

The media gets a lot of criticism. But it often does plenty of good. That’s what happened on this issue. That year, media coverage exposed the living conditions of these girls. Many could not speak English. When interviewed by police, they were afraid to tell their stories. More and more massage parlors were popping up around the state.

At that time, no one really wanted to believe that Human Trafficking existed in our state. Along with the trafficking of young women came the act of prostitution. The two acts usually go hand in hand.

The Media Helped

Young girls are trafficked to places where they are forced into prostitution. They are usually runaways, abused and homeless underage adolescents who are seeking a better life. What they get in return for their services is a life of misery, sexual and physical abuse, disease and sometimes even death.

Rhode Island was a safe haven for pimps, johns and sexual predators, all because of a loophole in the prostitution law. And we were the only state to have this loophole and word quickly spread. Isn’t that a great distinction to have?

In 2008, we passed the first Human trafficking bill in the General Assembly to ban Human Trafficking in Rhode Island. But while that passage was hailed as an accomplishment, I found out that without a law to ban indoor prostitution, the human trafficking law was hard to enforce.

Prostitution indoors was legal and only illegal outdoors due to a rewrite of the prostitution laws in the 1980’s, which focused on outside solicitation of prostitution. It did not give reference to prostitution indoors.

Closing Loopholes

It was two days before Thanksgiving in 2008 when I received a telephone call from then Superintendent Brendan Doherty telling me how much we needed a bill to ban indoor prostitution bill. Along with that telephone call, came a tremendous amount of support for passage of the bill from Colonel Doherty, Governor Donald Carcieri and other law enforcement agencies.  

Colonel McCartney of Warwick also was very supportive. He referenced the “Craigslist killer” coming to a Warwick hotel in an attempted plot against a massage therapist. The State Police and Warwick Police testified at committee meetings, attended press conferences, and verified what we knew all along. Sex trafficking in Rhode Island was growing because of the loophole in the prostitution law and we needed to stop it.  

Support continued from the public, law enforcement and community groups such as “Citizens Against Trafficking”, started by Professor Donna Hughes and attorney Melanie Shapiro, began to pop up.  

After much debate, a law banning indoor prostitution was passed in October 2009, as well as a amended ban on Human Trafficking. I also introduced a third bill to ban minors from working in the adult entertainment industry, which was becoming a common occurrence in Providence. These three bills passed both chambers and were signed into law by Governor Donald Carcieri.

More To Do

The Human Trafficking bill also created a task force made up of  general assembly members, law enforcement, social agencies, trafficking advocate groups and state agencies including Human services and the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Even though the three laws passed, we realized this was only the beginning. One of the most important components of the task force was to promote public education and awareness to warn parents about the dangers of the Internet, and the use of certain websites and newspapers which advertise the sexual services of young women and men.

More education is needed. Too many of our young women and men fall prey to these predators, because they are uninformed about the dangers of sex trafficking. We also need to ensure victims of trafficking are getting the services they need.

Let’s Have No More Victims

The bans on Human Trafficking and Indoor prostitution that passed are good laws, but we need to always remember that laws are only good if they are implemented. Law enforcement must stay vigilant in their effort to stop sex trafficking. The focus needs to be not only on the pimps and traffickers but the johns who purchase the services of these underage victims, and the landlords and property owners who permit these crimes on their premises.

Finally, the  Providence police said one of the homeless underage victims that was trafficked here to Providence from Massachusetts and sold for sex told the investigators that the day she was saved was the best day of her life. We need to make sure we liberate more victims of sex trafficking.

We look forward to the day when there will be no more trafficking victims in Rhode Island and our young people can look ahead, and not back, to remember the best day of their lives.

Joanne Giannini
Joanne Giannini is a former State Representative from Providence. A freelance journalist, consultant and writer, she has previously written commentary for The Providence journal, GolocalProv and WPRO radio. Contact her at Pt3270@yahoo.com
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