LIANE HANSEN, host:
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The state of Rhode Island has just passed a law to prohibit indoor prostitution, defined as prostitution that occurs behind closed doors. The legislation ends a technicality, one that had allowed brothels to operate legally across the state.
Reporter Ian Donnis of member station WRNI in Providence has more on the states efforts to criminalize the worlds oldest profession.
IAN DONNIS: Rhode Island lawmakers never intended to make indoor prostitution legal. Back in 1980, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law meant to speed the prosecution of streetwalkers. But legislators unwittingly created a loophole, decriminalizing prostitution. This loophole didn't attract much notice for years.
Then, in 2003, a court case made it clear that prostitutes were free from prosecution if their sex trade occurred behind closed doors. The result has been a growing number of so-called Asian spas that critics say are thinly veiled brothels.
On November 3rd, Governor Donald Carcieri closed the prostitution loophole by signing a bill that immediately banned indoor prostitution.
Governor DONALD CARCIERI (Republican, Rhode Island): Prostitution, outdoors or indoors, is a bad thing. I think it's been a black eye, frankly, in our state that we've allowed this to go on, for whatever the reason is, for far too long.
DONNIS: Law offices and other small businesses dominate this part of South Main Street in Providence, not far from downtown and the state attorney general's office.
Above a hair salon, there's a spa, which advertises hot and sexy Asian girls who are waiting to pamper visitors. An Internet listing for the business shows an attractive young Asian woman wearing a camisole and thong underwear.
Mr. PATRICK LYNCH (Attorney General, Rhode Island): I think its evidence that there may be one in your neighborhood.
DONNIS: Thats Attorney General Patrick Lynch. At last count, there were more than 30 spas in Rhode Island, most of them here in Providence, the state's largest city.
Lynch says the new law will allow law enforcement to shut down these spas if they continue to offer sexual services, and to go after organizations that exploit women as prostitutes.
Mr. LYNCH: We're going to look to kind of cut that source and shut it down.
DONNIS: Lynch predicts the law will also have a deterrent effect.
Mr. LYNCH: I think you'll see a dramatic drop in the number of brothels that are allegedly open in the state and the business that they do.
DONNIS: But even the main legislative sponsor of the new law acknowledges it won't end prostitution. And critics like state Representative Rod Driver say it will hurt women forced into the sex trade because of poverty or drug addiction.
Representative ROD DRIVER (Democrat, Rhode Island): The proponents of the bill keep talking about the victims the victims being the women that are in this profession. So we're going to help the women by putting them in prison, and I have a real problem with that.
DONNIS: The new law carries maximum penalties of six months in prison, a $1,000 fine or both for first-time offenders convicted of buying or selling sex. Streetwalking has remained illegal all along in Rhode Island. And critics of the new law say most of the women locked up at the state prison are already there for crimes related to on-street prostitution.
Judging the actual impact of Rhode Island's new law will take time. Even some legislative supporters call it an imperfect measure. But they say they're open to making changes.
For NPR News, Im Ian Donnis in Providence, Rhode Island.
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