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Rhode Island Escort Business Takes a Hit: Senate panel OKs bill outlawing indoor prostitution

PROVIDENCE — The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday evening swiftly approved a bill to criminalize prostitution that occurs indoors, with a full vote on the House floor expected as early as next week.

The bill, which the committee approved in an 8-to-4 vote, with 3 members absent, seeks to rewrite a nearly 30-year-old law that outlaws streetwalkers and soliciting for prostitution outdoors, but has no prohibition against prostitution that occurs indoors.

Rhode Island is the only state, except for certain counties in Nevada, that has no prohibition against indoor prostitution.

“Why should Rhode Island have this dubious distinction?” Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, [pictured] D-Providence, who introduced the bill, said after the vote. “Rape behind closed doors, is that permissible? Is murder permissible if it’s done behind closed doors?”

Supporters of the bill include state and local police, who say that it’s needed to investigate and prosecute cases where prostitutes may be coerced or forced into prostitution, generally defined as human trafficking. (A separate bill also introduced by Giannini to strengthen the state’s law against human trafficking has yet to come up for a vote.)

Opponents of the bill generally fall into two categories: those such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes what it views as an intrusion into peoples’ privacy, and those such as members of Brown University Students Against Human Trafficking, who say that criminalizing indoor prostitution will mean prosecuting prostitutes, who they view as victims.

(The Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking has lobbied in favor of the bill to strengthen the laws against human trafficking, but has taken no position on the prostitution bill.)

The amended version of the prostitution bill (H-5044 Sub A) approved Thursday includes a provision designed to protect victims of sex trafficking from being prosecuted by including an exemption for women who were “forced” into prostitution.

In addition to being threatened, restrained or physically harmed, the bill states that force can include someone whose passport, immigration papers or other identification documents are confiscated, concealed or destroyed.

“The bill gives the prostitute all of the outs,” Rep. Peter F. Martin said after the vote. “The prostitute can plead coercion … but the person procuring the services gets none of the outs. It’s against the johns.”

Rep. Rodney D. Driver, a Democrat whose district includes Charlestown, Exeter and Richmond, voted against the bill. “I don’t see why we should try to regulate what consenting adults do,” he said. “For the most part, [prostitutes] are there for their own free will… It’s a way for people to earn money.”

Rep. David A. Segal said that previous attempts to pass the prostitution bill have engendered opposition from groups such as the Coalition Against Domestic Violation and the National Organization of Women. “A vote for this is a vote against the will of those organizations,” he said.

Under the bill approved last night, 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. For a subsequent offense, they could face up to a year in prison and a fine of $500 to $1,000.

Giannini has introduced versions of the bill in each of the last three years, but this was the first time it has gained enough support among the membership to move it out of committee, said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr.

“I’m very confident,” Lally said, “we’ll pass it on the floor of the House.”

Giannini said that the amended version of the House bill approved Thursday will be sent to Sen. Paul V. Jabour, D-Providence, who has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.


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