In October 2012, six men were arrested in a police sting in downtown Boston for allegedly seeking underage prostitutes.
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley touted the arrests and released the men’s names and photos to put all potential sex buyers on notice. Those seeking girls and women of any age could expect to be treated as criminals, part of a statewide get-tough-on-Johns campaign.
Defendants, including a Sharon father of five and a Bellingham engineer, were charged under a state law that became effective in early 2012, increasing fines and jail time for sex buyers. Each man faced a minimum $1,000 fine for attempting to buy sex and up to five years in state prison for seeking to purchase sex from a minor.
But a year later, the get-tough talk has proven to be just talk. Four of the six men have seen their charges reduced, dismissed or continued without a finding. None was convicted of seeking to buy sex from minors. No one was fined $1,000. Instead, the steepest fines required one defendant to pay $65 a month in court fees for a year and watch a “John” video detailing the pernicious effects of the sex trade on prostitutes, their customers — and families — and the communities at large.
The lack of guilty findings and hefty fines for men arrested for buying sex is played over and over in courts across the Bay State, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found in a review of court records and interviews with law enforcement and prosecutors. Not one of the state’s 11 District Attorney’s offices could cite a sex buyer receiving even the minimum $1,000 fine, much less jail time since the law became effective, according to a NECIR survey.
Instead, the state’s purported effort to go after sex buyers — championed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley as key to fighting human trafficking — is struggling to gain traction, faced with inadequate resources, a lack of knowledge about the law and a long-held resistance to holding so-called “Johns” accountable, according to interviews with victim advocates, law enforcement and researchers.
For those who have gotten out of the sex trade — like 30-year old Adaiah Rojas who was recruited into prostitution at age 16 — such news is disheartening. Even though Rojas has been out of that world for more than a decade, the Lynn native and youth mentor can’t forget the threats, beatings and insults she received at the hands of sex buyers who were often released by police as she was led off in handcuffs.
“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?’’ asked Rojas. “I was treated as a criminal. I was treated with disgust.”
State Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who authored the sex trafficking law, said he was “chagrined” to hear that sex buyers — especially those seeking minors — were getting off so easily.
“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.”
Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, said many men charged with buying sex receive leniency in the courts because they are first offenders. The agency, he said, will now be more aggressive in instituting fines. The District Attorney’s office examined its practices in response to an NECIR request.
“That changes effective immediately,’’ he said, referring to the lack of larger fines. “The 2012 law has given us a new tool to drive demand down even further and we intend use it.”
Gov. Deval Patrick signed the “Act Relative to The Commercial Exploitation of People” in late 2011. The legislation was meant to protect and help victims of human trafficking, including thousands of local women and girls believed to have been forced into prostitution in Massachusetts. The law increased penalties for buyers as well as sex traffickers.
Lina Nealon, director of the Cambridge-based Demand Abolition project focusing on sex buyers, said society generally looks at men who purchase sex differently than it does the girls and women who provide it. Women are still arrested more than twice as often as the men who buy their services, according to 2012 state and federal data.
Nealon says prostitution is not a “victimless crime.” Most U.S. prostitutes are recruited as children, 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 women become addicted to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. They are often assaulted by their clients and pimps. Some, particularly from Asia, are smuggled into Massachusetts and forced to prostitute themselves to pay their traffickers.
At least one of out 10 U.S. men has admitted to buying sex, according to Michael Shively, a Cambridge-based researcher who studies sex buyers. Of the 293 men arrested for prostitution-related charges in Massachusetts in 2012, most were white and ranged in age from 16 to over 65, state data shows. The majority are educated and have formal partners, according to Demand Abolition.
“There’s a pervasive attitude that they are not really criminals,” Nealon said. “They are the guys next door. We can relate to them more than we can relate to a pimp or a prostitute.”
Because of this, many men are still simply let go by police without charges, according to interviews and public records.
In Lawrence, police arrested accused madam Lori Barron, 50, in June on charges that she ran a brothel out of a massage parlor. The mother of two was previously convicted of similar charges in Salem, N.H., where she lives.
Barron was charged with human trafficking under the new law as she is accused of recruiting women to work for her as receptionists, quickly promoting them to massage therapists who performed sex acts and then blackmailing the women with videotapes she took secretly in her business “The Day Spa for Gentlemen.”
Barron allegedly had a client list of 2,000, including firefighters, a police officer and a city councilor, according to police reports. But so far, none of them has been charged.
A spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the investigation is continuing so it would be premature to say whether additional charges will be filed. Meanwhile, Barron is due to return to Salem, Mass., Superior Court on Dec. 4 for a motions hearing.
“The men are still being let go,’’ said Audrey Morrissey, associate director of the Boston-based My Life My Choice Project, a nonprofit that works with young sex trafficking victims. “It is very upsetting.”
Despite growing concerns about domestic sex trafficking, the number of arrests for prostitution in Massachusetts and the nation has actually dropped over the last 15 years, according to national and state numbers. In Massachusetts, 2,835 men and women were arrested on prostitution-related charges in 1995 compared to 944 in 2012, state numbers show.
Shively, who runs a research site called DemandForum.net, said the decline is partly due to the fact that police departments are struggling financially and also because prostitution has largely moved out of the public eye with the help of technology, migrating from street solicitations to online advertising, from public corners to hotels and private homes.
There is frustration throughout the criminal justice system over the lack of legal consequences for sex buyers, Shively said. Law enforcement efforts to go after buyers are hampered by funding constraints, cutbacks in manpower, and a discouraging lack of follow through in the courts, he said. Prosecutors are often less than zealous when they receive cases they know are not likely to be winners.
Across the state, police departments concede that the task of bringing Johns to justice is rife with obstacles. Reverse stings, including female decoys, are more complicated and costly than simply picking up prostitutes. Capt. Robert Rufo of the Woburn Police Department says he is genuinely concerned about sex trafficking, but the department is overwhelmed by drug crimes.
Rufo also said he gets frustrated when cases fall apart in court. For example, four men arrested in March for buying sex all saw their cases dismissed after each paid a fine of $500, he said.
“I can tell you that of all the arrests, I don’t even recall even testifying in a prostitution case because it doesn’t get that far,” he said. “It’s just a fine, court cost, and a ‘please don’t come back to Woburn.’”
In Lawrence, Acting Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said the department has reduced the number of stings that target men, due to budget constraints. At the same time, he said, law enforcement is well aware of the need to go after buyers.
“They are supplying money to people who are addicts who are turning themselves for money,” he said.
While the prostitutes need money for drugs, Lawrence detectives said, their clients are both professionals and blue collar workers, many of whom have never been arrested before. If they’re charged, detectives said, the penalties are often small fines and occasionally probation. The sex sellers, on the other hand, often have outstanding warrants and criminal histories resulting in harsher treatment and penalties in court.
Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon said police receive spotty reports about prostitution there, generally when prostitutes sell their services on Craigslist or Backpage and arrange local meetings. He views the crimes of selling sex and purchasing sex as equal crimes but notes, as Fitzpatrick did, prostitution is predominantly fueled by drugs.
“Most are selling their services to pay for an addiction,” said Solomon, suggesting more drug rehabilitation resources are also needed for prostitutes.
In Lowell, police arrested 32 men on sex charges in 2012 but only 5 in the first nine months of 2013. Police Captain Kelly Richardson attributed the drop in arrests to the fact that police haven’t done a John sting in a while — partly because it is labor-intensive and partly because the problem has gone underground, with the help of the Internet.
He said he has been disheartened by the lack of follow through, even when arrests do occur. “We try to set a clear message that this will not be tolerated,” he said. “People are out there and they should know better and for some reason we aren’t getting any traction in court.”
Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski @EagleTribJill contributed to this story.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting ( www.necir.org ) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH TV/radio and supported in part by New England news outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. NECIR interns Michael Bottari, Steph Solis and Sarah Capungan contributed to this report. Contact Jenifer B. McKim at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jbmckim