Hawaii lawmakers are determined to keep an anti-human trafficking bill alive this session. But there’s still a major rift between vocal victims advocates who want laws criminalizing sex and labor trafficking, and law enforcement that thinks existing laws are adequate.
The support of Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro seems key to any human trafficking bill’s passage. But the prosecutor reiterated Thursday morning to House lawmakers that he doesn’t think Hawaii needs a human trafficking bill. He stands by his original proposal to toughen existing laws to attack the demand side of prostitution to stop sex trafficking.
“I don’t disagree with what (the advocates) are trying to do. I’ve always been very active in prosecuting johns,” Kaneshiro said. “But we already have these concepts in our current law.”
Kaneshiro’s comments come one day before he’s scheduled to meet with Luis de Baca, President Barack Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large in charge of monitoring and combating human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Hawaii is one of five states without a law banning the practice.
The House Human Services Committee voted to advance House Bill 576, which would establish sex trafficking as a felony offense. At an informational briefing before the committee voted on the measure, trafficking survivors gave testimony.
Several of the victims were former prostitutes who talked about the shame of having been forced into prostitution and the stigma they felt afterwards.
As if to underscore the point, as one victim tearfully recounted being forced at gunpoint to prostitute herself for three months, Rep. Faye Hanohano looked disgusted and twice rolled her eyes.
Hawaii clearly has a human trafficking problem. Federal prosecutors in Honolulu filed the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history in September, involving more than 400 Thai farm workers who were kept on farms here and in other states as indentured labor.
Lawmakers introduced 11 human-trafficking related bills this session. Six bills sought to establish specific human trafficking criminal statutes. Four of those bills — three in the House, one in the Senate — are still viable.
Last year, the Legislature unanimously passed what would have been Hawaii’s first human trafficking bill. But Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the bill in July after law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders opposed it, citing vague wording.
Clearly, that experience was fresh on legislators’ minds.
“I’d hate to have what happened last year — with the governor vetoing the bill — to happen again,” said House Human Services Committee Chair Rep. John Mizuno, who scheduled Tuesday’s hearing on HB 576. The measure was passed on to the Judiciary Committee with amendments.
But judging from Tuesday’s hearing, it could be deja vu for anti-trafficking advocates.
HB 576 is backed by the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, the same vocal victims advocate group that successfully lobbied for last year’s failed bill. This year’s bill is slightly different, but the same characters have lined up to oppose it again.
Deputy Attorney General Lance Goto said: “We do oppose this bill because it seeks to prohibit conduct already prohibited by the law.” The attorney general’s written testimony also indicates wording in the bill is again vague and confusing, and would make winning convictions more difficult.
Hawaii Public Defender John Tonaki seemed to side with Kaneshiro.
“I’m mainly here as an observer,” Tonaki said. “As Kaneshiro said, when you change things in the criminal code, you really have to be careful. You don’t want advocates to mix enforcement with problems in the law.”
“These cases can be very difficult to gather evidence on, so some of these may be enforcement problems rather than problems in the law,” Tonaki said.