HISTORICALLY, THE burden of the state laws to curb prostitution has fallen on prostitutes themselves, who can serve up to a year in prison if convicted. But a greater harm to society comes from pimps who profit from trafficking troubled young people into what amounts to sex slavery. Recognizing that, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed sensible legislation recently that would outlaw human trafficking — which technically isn’t a crime under current state law — and also bolster resources for prostitutes who are trying to get out of the trade. After making slight tweaks to the legislation, the Senate should follow suit, and Governor Patrick should sign the bill.
The measure, pushed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, would bring Massachusetts in line with more than 40 other states where pimps are subject to human-trafficking laws. The need for such reforms was jaw-droppingly clear last month, when a Dorchester man was arrested and accused of abducting a 15-year-old girl and forcing her into prostitution. The problem was also in evidence last fall, when Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley was approached in the busy Back Bay MBTA station by a pimp who offered her a job making $5,000 a week. Boston police sent an undercover officer to the station in response, and the plainclothes policewoman was solicited as well — but by a different pimp altogether.
The House legislation would help tighten law enforcement’s grip on pimps by upping the maximum penalty for selling the sexual services of adults from two to 15 years. Anyone selling a minor would face life imprisonment. Significantly, minors who are caught on prostitution charges would be treated more like victims than criminals.
The Senate’s version of the bill should keep a measure that would provide new services to prostitutes who wish to leave the sex trade, and help pay for it with money seized from pimps. Another worthwhile measure would create a task force to study the extent to which human trafficking occurs in Massachusetts. But the Senate should resist the House’s push to lengthen potential prison sentences for johns from one year, the current maximum, to two and a half years. While exposing those who use prostitutes to the threat of some prison time is necessary for deterrence, they shouldn’t be tying up prison space that could go to violent offenders.
When taken together, these changes should create an environment that is more hostile to those who organize the sex trade and more helpful to those who get trapped within it.