Last October, when six men were arrested in downtown Boston for allegedly seeking underage prostitutes in a police sting, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley touted the arrests and released the men’s names and pictures to local media. It was meant 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 new state law that increased fines and jail time for sex buyers, and became effective in early 2012. 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 largely that — just talk. Four of the six men have seen their charges reduced, dismissed or continued without a finding. None of them were convicted of seeking to buy sex from minors. No one has received a $1,000 fine. 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 charges and hefty fines for men arrested for buying sex is replayed 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 case where a sex buyer received even the minimum $1,000 fine, much less jail time, since the law became effective nearly two years ago, 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 for their role in the sex trade, 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.”
Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who authored the sex trafficking law, said he was “chagrined” to hear that sex buyers — especially those allegedly 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, legislation 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 also increased penalties for buyers as well as sex traffickers.
Although law enforcement nationwide has been targeting sex buyers since the 1960s, efforts have come in spurts and starts. The current focus is spawned by the belief that, similar to the country’s war on drugs, prostitution cannot be effectively countered without a crackdown on those who buy sex. Sex trafficking, defined as commercial sex involving minors as well as any forced prostitution with adults, is the “fastest growing industry of organized crime,” according to a 2011 report by the FBI. The problem among U.S. street children is of “epidemic proportion,” the FBI says. Hundreds of thousands of children may be at risk.
Lina Nealon, director of the Cambridge-based Demand Abolition project that focuses on sex buyers, said that despite the growing severity of the problem, society generally looks at men who purchase sex differently from 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 struggles to educate people that prostitution is not a “victimless crime.” Most U.S. women are recruited into prostitution as children and 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.
The profile of the typical buyer of sex is often not unlike that of the police officers, prosecutors and judges they face. 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 Brookline, for example, police charged a woman and man in October on charges meant for prostitutes and pimps, releasing their names to the media. However, police redacted the name of the alleged sex buyer from police reports, saying the man had not been arrested.
Brookline Police Captain Thomas G. Keaveney told NECIR that the buyer likely wasn’t arrested because he cooperated with police. However, he said the man will be summoned to court on prostitution-related charges. Keaveney said he didn’t agree with the decision to withhold his name. “I can make sure that doesn’t happen again," he said. “I know we are not protecting this guy.”
In Lawrence, police arrested accused madam Lori Barron in June on charges that she ran a brothel. But so far, no clients have been charged, although police are still investigating a list of alleged sex buyers, including firefighters, a police officer and city councilors, according to police reports.
“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. And judges, buried under burgeoning caseloads, must weigh the time needed to try misdemeanor cases when grave felonies demand their attention.
In certain areas of the state, efforts to crack down on johns are having some impact. More than 900 cities and towns across the U.S. have at one time or another pursued buyers, be they by reverse stings, car seizures or what is known as “public shaming," where men’s identities are released to the public, according to DemandForum. These include Worcester, Boston, New Bedford and Plymouth County. But impediments abound.
“There’s plenty of frustration to go around when it comes to addressing prostitution regarding adults and child sex trafficking," said Shively, a senior analyst with Abt Associates in Cambridge, a research company that supports DemandForum. “There are clear double standards, clear inequities."
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, Police Capt. James Fitzpatrick said the department has reduced the numbers 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.
In Lowell, police arrested 32 men on sex charges in 2012 but only 5 in the first nine months of 2013. Police Capt. 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.“
In Suffolk County, many men who are arrested on charges of buying sex end up without a conviction, records show. Of the 82 men who were arrested for the prostitution-related “sex for a fee” charge in 2012 and through the fall of 2013, nearly three-quarters were able to avoid guilty convictions through dismissals, pretrial probation and other legal maneuvering, data shows.
Wark said courts are generally forgiving with first-time offenders. He said even the embarrassment of an arrest can do the job — very few men end up arrested a second time.
Take Richard McIver, a 46-year-old truck driver from Brockton, who was one of the men nabbed in last year’s police sting in Boston. McIver allegedly reached out to a police officer posing as a 17-year-old girl on the website backpage.com, police records show.
McIver eventually pleaded guilty to one count of seeking to buy sex and was required to pay $65 a month in court fees for a year. The more serious count of attempting to entice a minor online was set aside as he was placed on “pretrial probation" for three years. That case will be closed without a conviction if he stays out of trouble.
McIver’s attorney, Elana Mikelus Gordon, said her client denied that he sought out a 17-year-old. She said he’s like many men seeking a paid “escort,” an activity she says is popular with many politicians and public figures who’ve been caught over the years. Nonetheless, she said the stress and embarrassment of the arrest and court case was enough to make him change his ways.
“He wants to forget this ever happened," she said. “He’s learned his lesson.”
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH News. 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