By Lynn Arditi
PROVIDENCE — The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill to outlaw indoor prostitution Wednesday night, paving the way for a final debate on the Senate floor Thursday.
The bill’s passage followed an hour of impassioned debate from both sides of the issue. Supporters said the bill would provide the police with the tools they need to conduct sting operations at brothels where, they said, pimps and sex-traffickers degrade and enslave women and children. Opponents argued that it would harm vulnerable women, drive prostitution underground and cost the financially strapped state more money by sending women to prison. .
The bill represents a compromise between the House and Senate that even some supporters said was a less-than-ideal outcome of a contentious effort to close a nearly 30-year-old loophole in the state’s prostitution law.
Prostitutes who work in brothels or out of their homes would face the same criminal misdemeanor charges as prostitutes who work the street. However, the bill would empower judges to erase any record of charges for convicted prostitutes after one year.
“It’s not a perfect bill,” said Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr., D-Narragansett, “but I believe it’s the best bill we can have at this time.”
The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Paul A. Jabour, D-Providence; the House bill’s sponsor is Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, D-Providence.
“This wasn’t done to hurt the women,” Giannini said on the House floor. “This was done to help the victims.”
But some members adamantly disagreed.
“To imprison women because this is the only means they know to survive is shameful,” said Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, D-Providence. “There are real solutions to this problem, but unfortunately they are not in this bill today.”
Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, a former police officer, struck back, saying that women are being “imported into the state” to work as prostitutes.
“If you want to protect women,” he said, his voice rising, “you pass this law!”
Rep. Alfred A. Gemma, D-Warwick, argued that trying to outlaw indoor prostitution was similar to attempting to ban alcohol consumption in the days of speakeasies.
“This is trying to regulate morality,” he said.
Rep. Rodney D. Driver, D-Richmond, tried unsuccessfully to amend the prostitution bill to postpone enforcement until July 1, 2010, to allow the women who work as prostitutes and their landlords more time to prepare, saying “they’re not breaking the law at the present.” (The bill, as currently worded, would be effective on passage.)
The bill passed by a vote of 58-9. (Eight members, including some who spoke against the bill, did not vote.)
The House also passed a separate bill to strengthen the laws against human trafficking, by making trafficking of minors for sex a felony subject to 40 years in prison and a fine of up to $40,000 or both. The bill also would outlaw trafficking for forced labor. That bill, introduced by Sen. Rhoda A. Perry, D-Providence, was approved 54-0, with 21 members not voting. (An identical House bill, introduced by Giannini, is expected to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.)
The House also unanimously approved a bill, introduced by Giannini, making it illegal for anyone under 18 to work in any capacity in clubs that offer “adult entertainment.” That bill now heads for a final vote on the Senate floor Thursday. The measure follows the discovery earlier this year of an underage girl who was dancing in a strip club. KEY POINTS Prostitution bill
Criminalizes indoor prostitution First offenders face up to $1,000 fine and 6 months in prison.
Charges can be erased A judge could “expunge” prostitutes’ records after 1 year.
Punishes ‘Johns’ Prostitutes and their customers face same penalties.
Punishes landlords Landlords who knowingly allow prostitution could face up to 5 years in prison and $5,000 fines.
"That old law about 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing." - Martin Luther King (United States Constitution, Bill of Rights)