BOSTON -- Sex workers in Massachusetts would effectively be safe from arrest and prosecution under a new bill filed this session by a Newton representative, and local lawmakers have mixed feelings on it.
The bill, which had a hearing on Tuesday before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, would get rid of the criminal penalties issued against prostitutes. The sex industry would remain inherently criminal, however -- pimps and johns could still face criminal charges or penalties, according to the sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kay Khan.
"Many victims of commercial sexual exploitation continue to be arrested and incarcerated for prostitution-related crimes, only to return to prostitution without receiving any help for the trauma they have endured," Khan said, "often due to lack of income, substance use disorders or coercion."
She said the bill aims to end the "traumatizing effect" that arrests can have on sex workers.
"Incarceration and arrests are not the answer and our state statute should reflect that," she said of the population.
Acton Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Leominster Rep. Natalie Higgins have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors, along with about 20 other Democrats.
Higgins has been active at various levels of the rape-prevention movement for the past decade. She called criminal justice reform aimed at protecting community members who can be considered victims and exploited -- including sex workers -- an important conversation to have.
"How do we get them into the right kind of programming and help them get their feet on the ground without them having a criminal record, which can prevent them from getting any other job?" Higgins said.
She referenced diversion programs available to former sex workers.
Democratic Lowell Rep. Thomas Golden said more social services should be put in place to protect sex workers, many of whom are trafficked against their will or became addicted to drugs.
"It's admirable what (Khan) is trying to do, especially with the disgracefulness of tracking and with people that do that," Golden said, adding that the Legislature should "attack this problem in a different way."
Instead of decriminalizing the act of prostitution, Golden said, courts should have more decision-making power in ruling whether a sex worker was trafficked against their will.
"I think, bring the person in to make sure that they are not being trafficked or (check if) they have a drug problem," Golden said.
Khan's bill is similar to the so-called "Nordic model" for decriminalized prostitution, which has been employed in Sweden since 1999. Canada, France and Norway utilize similar models in their prostitution laws.
Within the United States, Nevada has legalized prostitution -- with regulations -- in most counties.
The Massachusetts Legislature passed a comprehensive human trafficking bill in 2011, which established the Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force and gave the Attorney General's Office more tools to crack down on traffickers.
However, the current statutes still allow a minor to be arrested for prostitution-related crimes, according to Khan's office. Her bill would not allow minors or adults who have been "exploited" to be charged for prostitution offenses.
Khan estimates that the state spends upward of $1 million each year incarcerating women for prostitution crimes., Sun reporter Aaron Curtis contributed to this report.
Follow J.D. Capelouto on Twitter @jdcapelouto.