, Salem, MA

November 20, 2013

Our view: 'Get-tough' law on sex buyers is all talk, no action

The Salem News

---- — Two years ago this week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law an Act Relative to The Commercial Exploitation of People.

The law, which went into effect in 2012, targeted those who prostitute young women for their own financial gain, often exploiting their dependence on drugs.

The law also took aim at the other parties to the sex trade: the buyers of sex. They would now risk higher penalties than ever: up to two-and-a-half years behind bars and a minimum fine of $1,000, or both. The penalty for soliciting minors was increased to a maximum 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The law specified that such charges could not be swept under the carpet, as so many criminal cases are in Massachusetts, by rubber-stamping them as “continued without a finding.”

Yes, it was time to get tough on the “johns,” whose money fuels the business of prostitution. So proclaimed the bevy of politicians who lined behind Patrick as he signed the bill: Attorney General Martha Coakley, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley.

The author of the bill, state Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford, called it “the most important piece of legislation I have passed since joining the Senate.”

If only passing a law could end a crime like sex trafficking. We all know that’s not possible, though politicians might like us to think otherwise.

But it might help, at least a little bit, if the same politicians who pat themselves on the back when a law is passed would make sure it is enforced once the signing ceremony hoopla dies down on Beacon Hill.

But key provisions of the Act Relative to The Commercial Exploitation of People are not being enforced, according to a special report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

NECIR cited the case of six men arrested for seeking sex with minors in a police sting in downtown Boston last October.

Now, remember the penalty for seeking out minors for sex-for-pay is up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And forget about getting the case continued without a finding.

But, according to NECIR, at least four of the six alleged “johns” have had their charges reduced, dismissed or continued without a finding.

The stiffest penalty assessed against any of the six was $65 in court fees, plus a requirement to watch a video on the corrosive effects of the sex trade.

The case is not an isolated one. When NECIR surveyed the state’s 11 district attorney’s offices, not one could cite a single sex buyer who had been fined the supposed “minimum” $1,000 fine, much less sent to jail, since the law became effective.

In Lawrence, a Salem, N.H., woman charged with running a brothel in a downtown spa allegedly kept a list of 2,000 sex clients. None has been named or charged. That may become an issue when the “madam” goes to trial.

Sen. Montigny, who wrote the bill, said he was “chagrined” to hear that sex buyers — especially those seeking minors — were getting off so easily.

“I’m saying to DAs and cops and judges, when a minor gets involved, it is rape,’ he said. “If they thought they were engaging in sex with a minor, severe penalties must be applied.”

Apparently, law enforcement officials have not gotten the message.

A spokesman for the Suffolk County DA said many sex buyers have been shown leniency because they were first-offenders. But he promised the DA will now be more aggressive in pushing for fines.

“The 2012 law has given us a new tool to drive demand down even further and we intend use it,” the spokesman said.

Too bad they missed using that tool in 2012 and all of 2013, to date.

The NECIR report was greeted with the usual excuses that judges are too soft and police department don’t have the “resources” to enforce the law.

Here’s an idea for our political leaders: Don’t pass laws you’re not serious about enforcing.

Laws that go unenforced only breed contempt for the law, and that can have as corrosive an effect on the community as the evil they seek to eradicate.