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In Providence, a loophole eases sex for sale

'Spas' called fronts for prostitution

PROVIDENCE -- Sex is for sale in Providence, and police here say there's little they can do about it.

Behind storefronts that advertise as massage parlors and spas blocks from City Hall, police say, prostitution runs unfettered thanks to a loophole in state law that decriminalizes selling sex indoors. Although soliciting sexual favors on the street is illegal, police in Providence say prostitution is not prohibited if it happens behind closed doors.

''We don't have a law criminalizing prostitution indoors," said Providence Police Lieutenant Thomas Verdi, who leads the department's antiprostitution efforts.

Police and city officials have pushed for legislation to toughen antiprostitution laws.

But some say the state already has statutes in place to combat prostitution, and adding laws to punish prostitutes is unnecessary and wrongheaded.

Rhode Island has several laws barring prostitution, including one that prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution and one that bans the harboring or transporting of a prostitute.

The apparent loophole emerged from a revised loitering statute in 1980 that made it illegal for people to loiter in or near streets for the purpose of prostitution, said Michael Healey, a spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch. The law also prohibits stopping pedestrians and vehicles to solicit sex.

''There's just no explicit language in that statute that says . . . it is illegal for a 'john' to pay a prostitute for sex in a room or in a spa or in a motel or something," Healey said.

Verdi, commanding officer of the Police Department's narcotics and organized crime bureau, said about 10 spas serve as fronts for prostitution, including at least two, Midori Spa and the Bally Day Spa, within blocks of City Hall.

Verdi said police have raided nearly every suspect spa and massage parlor in the city and charged women there with prostitution, but the charges were thrown out.

He said it was impossible to shut them down because they were not doing anything illegal.

''None have closed their doors, because they don't have to. They continue to operate, continue to ship in their girls," he said.

A woman who answered the phone at Bally Day Spa said she had no knowledge of the business being raided and said it was not a house of prostitution. Midori Spa could not be reached.

The attorney general's office said it's probably overstating the case to say prostitution is ''decriminalized" in Rhode Island.

Though prosecutors cannot use loitering laws to combat indoor prostitution, there are other laws that can be used to prosecute it, Healey said.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he doesn't understand why Providence police believe prostitution is decriminalized when there are three felony statutes in Rhode Island that ban it.

''The current laws on the books have real teeth in them and are available for use right now," Brown said.

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