By Daniela Altimari
HARTFORD — Motels and hotels would be prohibited from renting rooms by the hour under a proposed strategy that targets the “demand side” of prostitution and sex trafficking.
“People need to start taking the issue of human trafficking very seriously,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague. “We should be looking at anything that tamps down on the sexual abuse of minors.”
The recommendations for the General Assembly from a special advisory council are designed to tackle problems such as the “mistake in age” defense that allows buyers of sex with children to argue that they were unaware of the victim’s age. The report from the Trafficking in Persons Council recommends that the state consider requiring hotels and motels to maintain records of all lodgers for at least six months to aid crime investigators.
Similar proposals have been considered in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Sprague, a supporter of the hourly rate prohibition, said she views it as “one more tool in our toolbox” to stop sex trafficking.
The council is also pressing for another change in the law that would prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from being prosecuted under prostitution statutes to ensure they are treated as victims.
The difference in the way the buyers and sellers of sex are treated under the law was a particular area of concern to members of the council. They examined arrest statistics over the past decade and found 1,841 convictions for prostitution in Connecticut, compared with 269 convictions for buying sex from a prostitute.
State laws ought to be amended so that the sellers and buyers of sex are treated equally, said Jillian Gilchrest, senior policy analyst at the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and chairwoman of the council.
“There’s a real imbalance between prostitutes and johns,” Gilchrest said. “Connecticut’s anti-trafficking laws are some of the strongest in the country, but there’s more that can be done.”
The Trafficking in Persons Council is charged by the legislature with guiding state policies regarding human trafficking, which is defined as coercing, forcing or threatening an individual to work or engage in sex.
State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said addressing the issue of human trafficking will be a “real priority” in the legislative session, which begins Wednesday. Tong, co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said efforts to crack down on trafficking are part of a broader package of reforms aimed at addressing violence against women.
But the idea of prohibiting hotels and motels from charging hourly rates raises complicated legal questions about the state’s rights to restrict business, Tong said.
“It gets into licensure matters … and what the state can do from a public health perspective,” Tong said.
Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of the Connecticut Lodging Association, said the industry recognizes that human trafficking is a problem. But restricting hotels and motels from charging hourly rates might not be an effective way to stop it. “I could rent a room and only use it for 15 minutes,” she said. “I’m not sure eliminating short-term rentals gets at the crux of the problem.”
Kozlowski suggested a public awareness campaign targeting motel employees and the public might be a better way to stop sex trafficking. For hotel and motel workers, “training is critically important as is partnering with state and local police,” she said.
Last year, the legislature expanded the council’s scope to include ways to protect child victims. The state’s human trafficking laws were amended in 2015 to create the legal assumption that anyone under 18 who is engaged in commercial sexual exploitation is the victim of trafficking.
The council also urged lawmakers to remove the “mistake in age” defense. Some people charged with purchasing sex with a minor claim that they did not know the child’s age, a defense that can result in a lower charge once the case gets to court.
“Having sex with a child is sexual abuse, plain and simple,” said Tammy Sneed, co-chairwoman of the Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team at the state Department of Children and Families. “The ‘mistake in age’ defense completely contradicts our efforts to protect children from predators.”