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House bucks Sununu on study of prostitution decriminalization

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

January 13. 2018 9:19PM
Gov. Chris Sununu (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)



State Rep. Elizabeth Edwards, now in her second term representing Manchester's Ward 4, says she often sees prostitutes just a block from her Wilson Street home.

"I am worried about those women because it is our laws that make it unsafe," Edwards said. "They can't call police if they're raped or robbed and they don't have the same access to justice as the rest of us."

Edwards says common-sense solutions are needed, which is why she co-sponsored HB 287, a bill to establish a committee to study decriminalizing sex work, something adamantly opposed by Gov. Chris Sununu, Republican leadership in the Legislature and law enforcement.

It's rare for Sununu to threaten a veto, but he pulled no punches on this one, issuing a statement warning against passage.

"There are those in the Legislature who want to explore legalizing prostitution. I am 100 percent against it, and would veto the bill if it reaches my desk," he said.

On Jan. 9, the House snubbed that warning and with little debate passed the bill in a bipartisan 177-134 vote. This issue, like marijuana legalization, does not break along party lines. Forty-four Republicans voted 'yes,' while 11 Democrats voted 'no.'

The bill came out of a Republican-dominated House Criminal Justice Committee with a 14-6 vote in favor. It also has a Republican co-sponsor, five-term Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, a former House speaker candidate.

Rep. Amanda Bouldin, D-Manchester, a co-sponsor, said the Sununu administration has mischaracterized the bill, which will not legalize prostitution.

"I am shocked that the Sununu administration has chosen to misrepresent the purpose of this bill in some backhanded effort to undermine a potentially lifesaving commission," she said. "This bill is designed to ensure the health and safety of women in New Hampshire."

The bill calls for creation of a committee to study "issues related to changing prostitution laws in New Hampshire." The committee would consist of three representatives and two senators, with a charge to study the scope of the sex trade in the Granite State and the "potential costs and benefits of partial or full decriminalization."

Edwards said she understands that some politicians are afraid of even talking about prostitution, but maintains there is support among the public and many lawmakers to find solutions that help those working in the sex trade, some of whom are victims of human trafficking, by bringing the practice out of the shadows.

Outside of the state's larger cities, "sex work" is a largely hidden endeavor.

A law enforcement official on the Seacoast says it's difficult to determine if there is a prostitution problem locally because the criminal acts take place behind closed doors and police rarely receive a complaint.

In Dover, police logged just one arrest for prostitution-related activities in 2017 and that involved a man who was texting teen girls to solicit sex acts.

Lt. Brant Dolleman said that doesn't mean there isn't prostitution in Dover. "I'm sure that it does happen. It's just not particularly visible to anyone," he said.

In Rochester, there was one prostitution-related arrest in 2017, according to Capt. Jason Thomas. Lt. Mark Newport said the Portsmouth Police Department investigated several cases throughout the year where prostitution was involved, but prostitution charges were not pressed.

In Manchester, there is more visible prosecution of the crime, including a bust leading to the arrest of eight people in September during an early-morning sting near Enright Park, dubbed "Operation Breakfast Club." It was the third such prostitution-related enforcement effort held in the city since June.

The New Hampshire Sunday News recently reported on a drug-dealing gang, "The Squad," that forced local women into prostitution.

Rebecca Ayling, project director of the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, based n Manchester, is coordinating an effort to study human trafficking in New Hampshire.

She said the group has not taken a position on HB 287.

Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said her organization has also not taken an official position on the bill.

dsolomon@unionleader.com

Correspondent Kimberley Haas contributed to this report.


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