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Despite Mass. law, sex trade clients seldom punished

An intent unmet in state’s 2011 trafficking law

In fall 2011, state officials hailed the passage of a human trafficking law that increased penalties for men who pay for sex from women in Massachusetts. But two years later, the effort has stalled because of inadequate resources, a lack of knowledge about the law, and resistance to holding so-called johns accountable, according to victim advocates, law enforcement officials, and researchers.

The law — designed to stifle the commercial sex trade, an underground industry that ensnares tens of thousands of girls and women across the United States — calls for jail terms of up to 2½ years and a maximum fine of $5,000 for buying sex, which is considered a misdemeanor.


In a recent survey, none of the state’s 11 district attorney’s offices could cite a single case in which a defendant has faced even the minimum fine of $1,000.

In Suffolk County, the majority of cases against men arrested for paying for sex since 2012 have been dismissed, reduced, or continued without guilty findings, records show. The cases included those of four men arrested in a police sting in Boston for allegedly seeking sex from underage girls.

The harshest penalty resulting from that incident? One of the accused was ordered to pay $65 a month in court fees for a year and watch a video detailing the effects of the sex trade.

State Senator Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who authored the Massachusetts sex trafficking law, said he was “chagrined” to hear purported johns — especially those allegedly targeting minors — were being treated leniently.

“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.”

Swanee Hunt, chairwoman of the Cambridge-based group Demand Abolition, which aims to stop sex buyers, also decried the lack of enforcement.


“A wide range of people, including survivors, worked so hard on this legislation,’’ she said. “What a travesty that it is not being enforced.”

Governor Deval Patrick signed the law — known as the Act Relative to The Commercial Exploitation of People — to protect and help victims of human trafficking as well as increase penalties for buyers and those profiting from sex trafficking, which is the “fastest-growing industry of organized crime,” according to the FBI. The problem has grown to “epidemic proportion,” the agency said.

At least one of 10 men in the United States has admitted to buying sex, according to Demandforum, a Cambridge-based website that tracks the prosecution of sex buyers.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who championed the new law, said work is needed to educate law enforcement officials and the public about the role johns play in sex trafficking. Her office has charged 13 people with human trafficking under the law, an option unavailable before last year.

In August, a task force Coakley chairs recommended new efforts to lessen demand — including the launch of a statewide “john school” to educate buyers about the links between prostitution and sex trafficking, and more training “to ensure cases are investigated, pursued, prosecuted, and not merely dismissed.”

Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, said many men charged with buying sex are treated leniently by the courts because they are first-time offenders. But Wark said the district attorney’s office plans to be more aggressive in pushing for fines against sex buyers.


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

More than 900 cities and towns across the United States have at one time or another stepped up efforts to prosecute people who pay for sex. The methods used have included reverse stings, car seizures, and “public shaming’’ through the release of alleged offenders’ names, according to the Demandforum website.

Michael Shively, senior associate with the Cambridge research company Abt Associates — which supports Demandforum — said police efforts are often hampered by inadequate funding and manpower, and a lack of follow-through in the courts. In turn, prosecutors are often less than zealous when they receive cases that are not likely to be winners, Shively said. And judges must weigh the time needed to try misdemeanor cases when their dockets are crowded with felonies.

“There’s plenty of frustration to go around when it comes to addressing prostitution regarding adults and child sex trafficking,’’ Shively said. “There are clear double standards, clear inequities.’’

Lina Nealon, policy director of the advocacy group Demand Abolition — which fights sex trafficking by focusing on demand — said society generally views men who purchase sex differently from the girls and women who provide it. Women are arrested more than twice as often as men who buy their services, according to 2012 state and federal data.


Nealon said she struggles to educate people that prostitution is not a “victimless crime.” Most US women are recruited into prostitution as children and controlled by pimps who keep their money in a trade often described as modern-day slavery, she said. If they don’t get out, many become addicted to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope, and often are assaulted by clients and pimps.

By contrast, the profile of the typical buyer is often not unlike those of police officers, prosecutors, and judges, Nealon said. “There’s a pervasive attitude that they are not really criminals,” she said. “They are the guys next door.”

Because of this, many men caught for allegedly paying for sex are simply released, according to public records and interviews with those involved in some of the cases. In Brookline, for example, police in October arrested a woman and man on charges meant for prostitutes and pimps, and released their names publicly. The identity of the alleged john was redacted because he was not arrested.

Brookline Police captain Thomas G. Keaveney said an arrest probably wasn’t made because the man cooperated with police and would be summoned to court later. But Keaveney said he didn’t agree with the decision to withhold his name.

“I can make sure that doesn’t happen again,’’ he said. “I know we are not protecting this guy.”

In Lawrence, police in June arrested Lori Barron on charges she ran a brothel, but so far none of her alleged clients have been charged. Police are apparently still investigating a list of alleged johns in that case — including firefighters, a police officer, and city councilors.


For those who have escaped the sex trade — like 30-year old Adaiah Rojas, who was recruited into prostitution when she was 16 — the lack of prosecution against johns is especially discouraging. “Why protect these men that are cheating on their wives, living double lives, while, me as a minor, I was labeled and put out there to be a horrible person?’’ said Rojas, who is a youth mentor with My Life My Choice, a Boston nonprofit group that helps young sex trafficking victims. “I was treated as a criminal. I was treated with disgust.”

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH. NECIR interns Michael Bottari, Steph Solis and Sarah Capungan contributed to this report. Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jbmckim.