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The Sex Trade
The Pimps' Friends in Albany

A study a couple of years ago found that the State Legislature in New York was the most dysfunctional in America. The study, conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, described a gridlocked legislative process that accomplished remarkably little.

Here's an example of the dysfunction in action.

Early last year a Democratic assemblyman from the Bronx, Jeffrey Dinowitz, introduced a bill to fight sex trafficking. It had overwhelming support in the Assembly, which is not surprising. Other than the johns and the pimps, who's out there championing forced prostitution?

Mr. Dinowitz hoped, through his legislation, to establish two new crimes in New York: trafficking a person for sexual servitude and trafficking a person for labor servitude.

Sex trafficking — the coercing of women and girls into the sex trade — is no small problem in New York and across the U.S. Attempts to specify the number of trafficking victims have proved unreliable. But federal officials believe many thousands of women and girls are forced into prostitution each year, and thousands more are put to work against their will in massage parlors, strip clubs and other corners of the sex-for-money industry.

Some victims are literally held under lock and key as sex slaves. Others are threatened with violence if they don't cooperate, or are told that their relatives will be harmed. Some are obliged to work to pay off financial "obligations." It is common for immigrants to be forced into prostitution after being lured to the U.S. with false promises of legitimate work. They have their passports confiscated and their money stolen, and are left at the mercy of pimps and madams.

Mr. Dinowitz's bill was a modest attempt to fight this unconscionable exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. It would have made trafficking a Class C felony, with penalties ranging from probation for a first-time offender to a maximum of 15 years in prison. It would have modestly raised the penalties for patronizing prostitutes, making it easier to jail chronic offenders. And it would have addressed the problem of sex tourism, in which tour companies arrange trips from the U.S. to foreign countries so the tourists — invariably men — can have sex with foreign prostitutes, many of whom have been forced into the sex trade, and some of whom are children.

The bill hit a few roadblocks. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, and others felt that some of the bill's language was too broad. The speaker, his staffers and other interested parties went to work on it, reworking the language and narrowing the bill's focus.

But they did more than add precision to the language of the bill. They watered the bill down.

Although the speaker and members of his staff insisted that the crimes covered by the bill were "serious felonies," they lowered the crime of trafficking to a Class D felony, making it much easier for convicted sex traffickers to escape prison time altogether.

Additional penalties against johns were scrapped, as was any reference to sex tourism. And so on.

The bill then passed the Assembly and was sent over to the Senate.

But the Republican-controlled Senate had its own anti-trafficking measure and touted it with bombastic language. The sponsor of the Senate bill, Frank Padavan of Queens, declared that "human trafficking is a despicable form of modern slavery, and it is unthinkable that it would be allowed to flourish in our democracy."

The Padavan bill would have made sex trafficking a Class C felony, but it equated sexual servitude with labor servitude in a way that suggested — perhaps inadvertently — that being a prostitute was just another job, like farm work, or garment-making. Unlike the Dinowitz bill, it offered no services to the victims of trafficking. And it did not allow women charged with prostitution to use the fact that they had been trafficked as a defense.

Neither house of the Legislature gave the other house's bill serious consideration. Last week the Assembly and the Senate adjourned without making any genuine attempt to actually enact a law against sex trafficking. It was a big win for the pimps and the madams.

The state's effort to combat trafficking in New York could hardly have been more ineffective. The Legislature's status as the most dysfunctional in the nation seems secure.

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