What a difference a word can make. Or, in the case of Senate Bill 2602, three words. The proposal, said co-sponsor Sen. Gayle Goldin, was originally worded to target sex traffickers. But by changing the phrase “in order to commit” to “or” the legislation would also target sex workers, too.
Goldin was the only member of the Senate to vote against the bill last week and is urging her House colleagues to similarly reject it when they consider it on Tuesday.
“On its surface, it may appear that this law is necessary to catch more of the bad guys,” she said. “In reality, the wording of this bill conflates sex trafficking with prostitution.”
The amendment to state law 11-67-3 initially read, “Trafficking of persons for forced labor or commercial sexual activity” read (with added emphasis on altered phrase): “Whoever knowingly … Recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means, or attempts to recruit, entice, harbor, transport provide, or obtain by any means, another person, intending or knowing that the person will be subjected to forced labor in order to commit a commercial sexual activity…”
Steve Brown said the ACLU thinks the bill casts an overly broad net. “It’s not just prostitutes,” he said. “What if a prostitute uses a particular cab driver.” He said the bill as written could mean that cab driver is guilty of sex trafficking.
The language change was suggested by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin “to clarify that trafficking applies to both forced labor and commercial sexual activity,” said spokeswoman Amy Kempe.
“Currently, the section provides that in order to prove trafficking, the State would have to provide that the person trafficked another knowing that they would be subject to forced labor in order to commit commercial sexual activity,” Kempe said. “Forced labor and commercial sexual activity are two distinct acts under that chapter and should be treated as such.”
But Goldin said the slight change has fouled the intent of the legislation.
It “would mean that the penalties intended specifically for the traffickers could also be used to penalize sex workers themselves,” she told me in an email. “If this bill makes it to the Governor’s desk, instead of protecting the sex workers who are being victimized by these horrendous acts of trafficking and ensuring they receive the level of intensive services they need, we will potentially prosecute them. Rhode Island’s human trafficking law was the result of careful, deliberate work to determine a way to strengthen protections for anyone in our state who is being forced into performing labor of any type, including sexual activity. This bill’s change to the law undermines the very intention of the statute.”