Ajello’s Sex Workers bill was recently amended by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s staff, who removed language that would have also given immunity to sex buyers and allowed police to face civil liability.

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“What I was interested in was making it possible for sex workers to report crimes they witness without fear of being charged,” Ajello said. “That’s my goal. Not decriminalizing sex work. Just making it safe for people to report crimes.”

House spokesman Larry Berman said that the amended bill will not decriminalize prostitution, which was legal indoors in Rhode Island until 2009. An anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“This immunity bill offers protection for those experiencing or witnessing certain crimes — which is critical because these folks face extreme levels of violence, but are wary of reporting for fear of being arrested,” said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls. “It’s crucial to protect the most marginalized, while ensuring sex buyers, brothel owners, and other exploiters aren’t offered these same legal shields.”

But the original sponsor of the 2009 law that closed a loophole allowing indoor prostitution in Rhode Island said the new bill has “more loopholes than Swiss cheese.”

“We’ve learned nothing,” said Joanne Giannini, a former state representative from Providence. “I’m saddened to see we’re going to go backwards in the fight to end the sexual exploitation of women, children, and young males.”

The Rhode Island legislature had inadvertently decriminalized indoor prostitution in the 1980s, after a group of women sex workers filed a federal lawsuit complaining that the Providence police were arresting the women, and not the male buyers, and argued that the law making prostitution a felony was unfair for consenting adults.

So, the General Assembly reduced the crime of loitering for prostitution to a misdemeanor — and removed language prohibiting prostitution. By the 1990s, Rhode Island became known for its red-light entertainment, particularly in Providence, where massage parlors operated openly near City Hall and the State House.

Giannini’s 2009 law made indoor prostitution and sex trafficking a crime while also giving victims an “affirmative defense” if they are forced into prostitution, by threats, intimidation, and abuse.

Ajello voted against the 2009 law.

“It seemed to me, and still seems to me, that what goes on behind closed doors with or without money or something else of value being tendered, it’s OK,” she said. “I don’t know that Rhode Island had particular problems that needed to be addressed with legislation.”

As vice chairwoman on a House commission that studied decriminalizing prostitution, called the “Special Legislative Commission to Study Ensuring Racial Equity and Optimizing Health and Safety Laws Affecting Marginalized Individuals,” Ajello said she heard from sex workers who said they were reluctant to report crimes such as sex trafficking or abuse by sex buyers because they were afraid of being arrested for prostitution.

Several members of the House commission are from organizations that support decriminalizing sex work. In 2022, Decriminalize Sex Work spent $82,764 in Rhode Island, and its affiliate, Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work spent $30,000 to “change a few of the state’s prostitution statutes, setting the stage for a more muscular lobbying effort in 2023.” Ajello’s House commission released a report with its recommendations in early 2023, and since then, has used the recommendations to push for legislation.

Ajello said her bill would protect those who are sex workers and either are victims of a crime, witness a crime, or are aware of someone else as a victim, and report or attempt to cooperate with law enforcement. If the person decides not to cooperate out of concern of safety or health, they may not be charged. When asked what she thought about the amendments to water down H7165, she said, “You’ll have to ask the Speaker.”

While there have been cases over the last 15 years where women working in prostitution reported being victims of crimes, none were also charged. Ajello was not able to name a case where a sex worker was charged after reporting a crime.

Executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, Sid Wordell, said it would be more appropriate for police to offer immunity on a case-by-case basis, and that the amended bill could still impede how police conduct investigations. But Ajello dismissed the chiefs association’s concerns, saying “the police always want authority to make these decisions.”

Donna M. Hughes, professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and a founder of academic study of human trafficking, questioned the purpose of the legislation.

“Has there ever been a case in which someone stepped forward to say, ‘I think I saw trafficking’ and they were arrested?” Hughes said. “So, who are these witnesses they think it’s so important to protect?”

The language of the bill is “very confusing, and when you see confusing language, it opens up the probability for interpretation and loopholes,” Hughes said.

Attorney General Peter Neronha declined to take a position on the bill, but spokesman Brian Hodge said it “has long been clear that the Office’s prosecutorial focus is squarely fixed on those perpetrating human trafficking and johns, rather than sex workers themselves.”