BOSTON—State Attorney General Martha Coakley is warning that a new law designed to crack down on pimps while casting children and others who work as prostitutes as victims will take a shift in thinking for police and prosecutors.
Coakley made her comments Monday moments after Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a bill against human trafficking. The law is designed to change the focus of police and prosecutors from targeting prostitutes to going after the men who pay for sex with them and the pimps who profit from the transactions.
The law establishes the state crime of human trafficking for sexual servitude, punishable by at least five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000 upon conviction.
It imposes a life sentence for anyone found guilty of trafficking children for sex or forced labor and includes a safe harbor provision allowing prosecutors to look at first-time offenders under 18 as victims rather than criminals. A company that traffics people for sexual servitude or forced labor services would face a $1 million fine.
Coakley, who pushed for the changes, conceded that the state's existing criminal justice system has been too lax on those who pay for sex and left "unpunished those who would make money off of trafficking" -- all the while arresting and prosecuting those most exploited by the sex trade.
"We have focused on the very people who have been victimized the most," Coakley said. "What the bill does is change the lens around on that. That's why implementing this is going to be difficult. I think we can do it. It's a real change in the way we've approached it."
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said the new law may take some getting used to, but he said his office has already begun to make that change.
In 2004, the county launched a program to divert prostituted youths out of the criminal justice system and into programs designed to help them escape the cycle of prostitution.
"We have to lift the veil of anonymity that protects the pimps and johns who exploit them, and we have to commit ourselves to a long-term policy that protects the true victims and holds the true offenders accountable," Conley said.
The bill also addresses the demand side of human trafficking by increasing the punishment on those who pay for sex.
Anyone soliciting a prostitute would face a prison sentence of up to two and a half years and a fine of up to $5,000 upon conviction. Someone who agrees to pay for sex with anyone under 18 would face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The new law also allows someone who has been forced into sexual servitude or forced labor to sue those who exploited him or her, while another section creates a fund to support community-based programs that provide services to victims of human trafficking. The money for the Victims of Human Trafficking Trust Fund would come from property including airplanes, cars and land seized from those convicted of trafficking.
To respond to the growing use of the Internet as a human trafficking tool, the new law also creates the crime of enticing a child into prostitution by electronic communication.
The law also creates another new crime, organ trafficking. Those found guilty of enticing someone to have an organ or body part removed for sale would face up to 15 years in state prison or a fine of $50,000 or both.
The main sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mark Montigny, said putting the focus on pimps and johns while treating those being prostituted as victims was the top priority of the law.
"No longer will children that are having sex with adults for money be treated as child delinquents. They are in fact being raped by the very nature of the act," said Montigny, D-New Bedford. "It's making sure that everyone in society, when they see a child on the corner who doesn't look quite right or see a woman being prostituted, they stop the thinking that it's simply a petty crime and start the thinking that it is in fact trafficking and enslaving a human being."