R.I. law-enforcement officials say Senate bill outlawing indoor prostitution is flawed

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Efforts to outlaw indoor prostitution stalled as state lawmakers went home for the weekend with no agreement on how to close a nearly 30-year-old “loophole” in the state law.

Two competing prostitution bills — one approved by the House last May and the other by the Senate Thursday night — were pending in the General Assembly. Both chambers must approve one, identical bill in order for it to become law.

The bills differ significantly.

The Senate bill (S-0596 Sub A) introduced by Sen. Paul V. Jabour, D-Providence, and approved by the Senate, 35 to 0, Thursday night, attempts to rewrite the old language in the state statute on loitering, soliciting and harboring for prostitution –– some of which dates back to 1956. The bill replaces that old language with new statutes that provide for staggered penalties for first, second and third offenses. Prostitutes, their “customers” and property owners who are found guilty of a first offense would have been punished by a “violation” and a fine.

The Senate bill also provided for penalties for landlords who “knowingly” allow prostitution on their property. Landlords who were repeat offenders would have faced up to three years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

The House bill (H-5044 Sub A) introduced by Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, D-Providence, and approved by the House last May by a vote of 62 to 8, had no penalties for landlords but contained stiffer penalties for prostitutes and customers who were first-time offenders. Anyone found guilty of prostitution faced imprisonment for up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000. The penalty for subsequent offenses was up to a year imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000. The bill contained the same penalties for “customers.”

Governor Carcieri, the state police and Attorney General Patrick Lynch all voiced support of Giannini’s bill.

Last Friday, state law enforcement officials criticized the Senate bill, saying that it lacked the criminal penalties necessary to prosecute offenders and deleted key language in the existing law against loitering, pandering and solicitation.

“Rhode Island State Police cannot support civil sanctions for such reprehensible acts,” state police Supt. Col. Brendan P. Doherty wrote Friday in a letter to Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill awaited a hearing.

The Senate bill treats first-time offences like a “speeding ticket,” said Michael Healey, spokesman for Attorney General Lynch. “A fine does not equal a conviction. So if you’re not convicted of a crime the first time, the second offense actually becomes the first offense. You see the sort of twisted logic there?”

“By reducing the seriousness of the enforcement of these acts,” he continued, “we will actually be placing the women this bill intends to protect in a dangerous environment where they will be further targeted for exploitation.”

Opponents of criminalizing indoor prostitution –– including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rhode Island Affiliate of NOW, and advocates for victims’ rights –– had argued against any law which would result in arresting and imprisoning more prostitutes, whom they view as victims.

larditi@projo.com

Original at Providence Journal

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