- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii has become the last state in the nation to explicitly ban sex trafficking.

Gov. David Ige signed the bill into law Tuesday. It makes sex trafficking a violent crime and class A felony, expands the statewide witness protection program to include sex trafficking and provides victims access to criminal injury compensation.

“It’s a historic day for Hawaii. Now, from sea to sea, the United States can say it banned sexual slavery,” said Kris Coffield, executive director of Imua Alliance, which works with sex trafficking victims. “The most direct benefit for victims is that now, instead of being criminalized and put in a jail cell, and facing prosecution, they’ll be placed in a support services network and treated as victims of violent crimes instead of accomplices to their own exploitation.”

Before Ige signed the bill, Hawaii was the only state in the nation without a law that specifically banned sex trafficking. Human trafficking was banned, but people paid for sex work could be prosecuted under the law, regardless of how they got into the sex trade.

Advocates have been pushing for a ban for more than a decade. Last year, Ige vetoed a similar bill after prosecutors said it would make it more difficult to catch the perpetrators.

“Victims who come forward will have more protections, more ability to be protected from being forced to testify,” said Kathryn Xian, executive director of Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, who has been pushing the bill for a decade. “Sometimes it’s very dangerous.”

Honolulu’s top prosecutor, Keith Kaneshiro, had serious concerns about part of the bill that reduces the offense of prostitution by a minor from a petty misdemeanor to a violation, said his assistant, Dave Koga, in an email. Kaneshiro said he believes this will place minors at risk by making them targets of recruitment by pimps.

Ige also signed a bill that provides funds for law enforcement agencies to test untested sex assault evidence kits. The Honolulu Police Department had about 1,500 rape kits that had not been tested earlier this year.

With the passage of the bill, victims of sex assault will see that “their experiences matter, that they should be treated with dignity and respect, and that’s something that’s reflected in the law, that they can’t be put on a shelf to collect dust,” said Cathy Betts, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.

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