Prostitution legal in Rhode Island? What happens in Pawtucket stays in Pawtucket

June 18, 4:41 PM · J. Doug Gill – Strange News Examiner

Thanks to a loophole created by a legislative mistake 30 years ago, Rhode Island prostitutes can legally ply their cash-for-sex trade as long as the transaction takes place indoors.

The loophole, which went largely unnoticed until Providence police raided several spas and massage parlors in 2003, was part of legislation passed in the 1970s.

Rhode Island’s law criminalizing prostitution was changed then after a group called Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) sued in federal court charging the Providence police were discriminating against women in their arrests.

The law at the time made prostitution a felony. The General Assembly amended the law to the current version of loitering for indecent purposes, a misdemeanor. In its current form, Rhode Island law targets the streetwalkers, their pimps, and customers who solicit them from their vehicles.

What it doesn’t include is a provision for prostitutes working for escort services and brothels, prompting a federal judge who analyzed the statute to rule that it had the effect of “decriminalizing indoor prostitution.”

When the 2003 raids were summarily dismissed in court due to the loophole, Providence police tried creative ways to skirt the law’s language.

Raids on parlors and spas resulted in charges ranging from “massage without a license” (Rhode Island law requires such establishments to be licensed by the state) to pandering. The tact has met with limited success, especially since only the manager can be charged with pandering.

The pandering charge is not applicable to a prostitute working from the home or a hotel room.

For the last four years – while dozens of parlors were opening throughout the state – Rhode Island lawmakers have tried to pass an amendment eliminating the loophole but each time the legislation has failed to make it out of committee.

This year, however, the Rhode Island house voted 62 – 8 on a bill that would make indoor prostitution illegal and sent the legislation to the state senate.

Today, Gov. Donald Carcieri is joining lawmakers, police chiefs and other supporters at a news conference to press senators to pass legislation that would make any form of prostitution illegal.

The state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women are among the groups opposing any change in the current law, saying the targeting of prostitutes will only victimize women forced to engage in prostitution by human traffickers.

“We believe these women need rehabilitation, not imprisonment and penalties,” said Josephine Martell of the Rhode Island National Organization for Women.

Former House Speaker Matthew J. Smith told the Associated Press lawmakers never meant to draw a distinction between indoor and outdoor prostitution and he now wants state legislators to eliminate any ambiguity.

“There’s no choice,” Smith told the AP. “We’re the laughing stock of the country.”

If the bill becomes law, anyone found guilty of prostitution or of procuring the services of a prostitute (both misdemeanors) would face imprisonment of up to six months, and a fine of $250 to $1,000. A subsequent offense could bring up to a year in prison and a fine of $500 to $1,000.

Original at The Examiner

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