Rhode Island is one of just two places in the union where prostitution is currently legal. But legislators could vote to put an end to that when they return from recess before the end of the summer.
While the state has laws forbidding public solicitation and the operation of brothels, there is no language explicitly barring the act of prostitution itself. In 1998 the state supreme court ruled that prostitution was legal if it took place indoors. In the United States, only Rhode Island and some parts of Nevada do not ban the practice.
The state's House and Senate have separately passed bills that target all forms of prostitution. The bills include punishments for prostitutes and their customers, but they differ significantly in the types of penalties allotted.
Legislators must reconcile the two pieces of legislation into a single bill to send it to the desk of Gov. Donald Carcieri '65, who has indicated his support for ending legal prostitution.
The Senate bill carries fines for first and second violations and up to six months in prison. Criminal charges cannot be brought before a third offense. For those "permitting prostitution" on the premises of their property, the bill provides for up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a third offense. The bill passed 35-0 in June.
The Senate version of the bill cracks down on the practice without excessively penalizing women in the sex trade, said State Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91, D-Dist. 3, whose district includes College Hill.
The House bill carries up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to a year for subsequent offenses for both prostitutes and their customers.
The bill also provides victims of human trafficking immunity from prosecution.
Police "struggled" to make arrests under a previous human trafficking law "because trafficking victims generally are not cooperative with police because they are afraid of arrest or retribution," according to a press release from the office of State Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Dist. 7, who sponsored the House bill.
But Perry said the House bill "places an unfair and heavy burden on the victim."
"Threatening women … will not deter them from prostitution," she said.
Prominent officials have voiced their support for the House bill, including Carcieri, Attorney General Patrick Lynch '87 and Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty.
The American Civil Liberties Union is among those groups which oppose both versions of the bill. "We believe that if individuals are engaged in consensual sexual conduct it shouldn't be the state's business," said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter.
"More women are at the (Adult Correctional Institutions) for prostitution-related offenses than any other crime," Brown said, calling such arrests a "drain" on state resources.
Giving prostitutes a criminal record will only make it more difficult for them to find other forms of employment, Brown said.