Rhode Island is the latest locale to mull decriminalizing prostitution, with two different bills to this effect getting hearings in the state Senate's Judiciary Committee today.
From a criminal justice reform and civil liberties perspective, the most promising of these bills is S2713, drafted by the sex worker advocacy group Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics Rhode Island (COYOTE RI). The bill—introduced by state Sens. Cynthia Mendes (D–East Providence & Pawtucket) and Jeanine Calkin (D–Warwick)—would decriminalize selling sex, paying for sex, and a number of other consensual activities related to commercial sexual activity.
Under Mendes and Calkin's bill, Rhode Island's laws criminalizing prostitution, procurement of sexual conduct for a fee, loitering for prostitution, soliciting from motor vehicles for indecent purposes, pandering or permitting prostitution, and refusing to comply with examination and treatment for venereal disease protocols would be repealed.
The measure would also expunge the records of people previously convicted of violating these laws, with the exception of permitting prostitution or pandering.
"Sex workers and sex trafficking survivors are marginalized and urgently need access to the equal protections of the justice system," said representatives from COYOTE RI in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"In a survey of 63 Rhode Island sex workers that COYOTE conducted in conjunction with Brown University…79% of sex workers who had tried to report a crime to police reported that they were turned away, 21% reported that they were [threatened] with arrest, and 6% said they were actually arrested while trying to report a crime to police," states COYOTE's letter. The group argues that criminalizing prostitution makes current and former sex workers vulnerable to homelessness, housing insecurity, employment discrimination, financial discrimination, and discrimination in child custody proceedings.
COYOTE RI Executive Director Bella Robinson tells Reason that they don't think the bill will get past committee, but "it's part of a strategy to start a conversation."
The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee is also considering S2716, which would decriminalize prostitution but make it a civil violation, punishable by a fine of up to $250. (Under current Rhode Island law, prostitution is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.) Procurement of sexual conduct for a fee, loitering for prostitution, and soliciting from motor vehicles for indecent purposes would also become civil offenses (and offenders would be subject to fines rather than incarceration).
This bill—from Calkin and three other Democratic senators—would leave in place a law that states that those cited "may be examined by the department of health for venereal disease" and, if found to have a disease and be infectious, treated and potentially quarantined. But refusal to comply would also go from a misdemeanor crime punishable by imprisonment to a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $250.
Robinson says S2716 doesn't go far enough but is "a step in the right direction."
She and COYOTE RI are also backing Senate Bill 2233, which says that "peace officers" (a designation that includes police, fire marshals, corrections officers, and others) aren't allowed to have sex with people detained, in police custody, under arrest, imprisoned, in a work-release program, or on probation, parole, or any other form of supervised release. Doing so would be considered sexual assault.
"This bill makes clear what should always be the legal standard — those being
detained or in police custody should never be subject to sexual abuse or rape from
'peace officers,'" wrote Robinson in a letter to lawmakers. "It is common sense that those who are detained or under arrest are legally incapable of consenting to sexual acts with peace officers who hold enormous power over them."
Robinson and COYOTE suggest adding "people under investigation" to the categories of people with whom law enforcement officers are not allowed to have sex.
Advancing any of these measures beyond committee is a long shot, says Robinson.
Still, their introduction is more than most state legislatures have mustered and marks Rhode Island as a state that could pave the way for others in advancing sex worker rights and reforming prostitution laws.
Last year, the state created a study commission "to make a comprehensive study and provide recommendations on the health and safety impact of revising laws related to commercial sexual activity." The commission began meeting last fall.
In 1980, on the heels of a lawsuit filed by COYOTE, the state revised its law against "lewd and indecent acts" to ban street solicitation but not sex work that took place indoors, meaning indoor prostitution in the state was effectively decriminalized from 1980 until 2009. That year, decriminalization fell prey to growing hysteria about human trafficking, and the state passed a measure to make indoor prostitution explicitly illegal once again.
Unsurprisingly, the sponsor of that 2009 bill—Joanne Giannini, now a freelance writer—has been speaking out against the current decriminalization efforts, suggesting that it would make Rhode Island a "safe haven for sex trafficking and human trafficking." Contra Giannini, however, the decriminalization bills would change nothing about Rhode Island's laws against trafficking someone for forced labor or prostitution, nor the state's laws against "patronizing a victim of sexual servitude" or "patronizing a minor for commercial sexual activity."