PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – Rhode Island could soon end a dubious distinction of being the only place outside certain counties in Nevada where indoor prostitution is legal.

House lawmakers voted 62-8 on Wednesday to close a loophole in state law, which criminalizes the solicitation of sexual acts in the street but not behind closed doors. It now heads for a vote in the Senate, where identical legislation is pending.

The push comes in response to years of complaints by police that Rhode Island’s law essentially permitted brothels to operate in plain sight.

“It’s a black eye for Rhode Island, and I believe it’s time we close the loophole,” said Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Providence, who sponsored the bill ending the distinction between indoor and outdoor prostitution. “We have to have consistency in our laws.”

Rhode Island never expressly legalized prostitution and has several statutes meant to discourage the world’s oldest profession.

Instead, lawmakers goofed in 1980 when they revamped a statute making it illegal for people to engage in prostitution in or near the street. The law also prohibits stopping vehicles and people to solicit sex. Nothing in the statute explicitly prohibited prostitution that occurs indoors, however.

Giannini’s bill would end that distinction. If it becomes law, prostitutes could be punished by a prison term of up to six months in prison and a maximum $1,000 fine for a first offense. Subsequent convictions would carry a prison term of up to one year and similar fines.

Those convicted of hiring a prostitute would face the same penalties.

Gov. Don Carcieri supports closing the loophole but will not take a position on the bill until it reaches his desk, said his spokeswoman, Amy Kempe.

Providence police have complained they are powerless to stop massage parlors suspected of harboring prostitutes just blocks from City Hall.

Last year, Middletown police charged a 25-year-old woman with drug offenses after a teenage girl also arrested in the bust told police they were meeting men in a motel room for paid sex. Prostitution charges were unlikely to survive a courtroom challenge under state law.

Efforts to close the loophole have repeatedly died in the Statehouse amid criticism that police and prosecutors should not target prostitutes forced into the trade against their will by human traffickers.

Giannini’s bill would allow accused prostitutes to avoid charges if they were physically threatened, intimidated or had their passports or immigration documents seized to prevent them from fleeing to safety.

Those protections still didn’t satisfy several lawmakers. Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, said she opposes prostitution but wanted more leeway for first-time offenders, especially for those suffering from drug addiction or poverty in a state with 10.5 percent unemployment.

“Some of them may be unemployed by no fault of their own, and find that ‘Let me go make a quick buck to pay the landlord, or pay to keep the light on,”‘ Williams said. “At that moment they make that wrong decision, they get popped. They lose everything they’ve worked for.”

AP-ES-05-13-09 1906EDT


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