Government, Latest News, WVPA Sharing

W.Va. lawmakers support ruling on sex workers


The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington

Local representatives in the West Virginia House of Delegates said last week they were prepared to reconsider state laws regarding prosecution and punishment of commercial sex workers in light of a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on May 17.

By a margin of 3-2, the justices ruled that sex workers in West Virginia cannot be charged with a felony under current state law.

West Virginia penalties for people engaging in acts and solicitation of prostitution are misdemeanors upon first and second conviction. The charge becomes a felony upon third-offense conviction. The punishment for a felony conviction is one to three years’ imprisonment.

West Virginia code for third-offense solicitation of an act of prostitution states the “provision shall apply only to the pimp, panderer, solicitor, operator or any person benefiting financially or otherwise from the earnings of a prostitute.”

While they were in Charleston this week for a special legislative session, Cabell County Dels. Carol Miller, Kelli Sobonya and Chuck Romine, all Republicans, and Chad Lovejoy, a Democrat, said there was interest among members of the House to revisit the law and clarify the statute, but to what end the law would meet would require more consideration by legislators.

The delegates said that crimes committed by sex workers aren’t black and white, noting that the actual crime of prostitution often is symptomatic of a larger problem most likely with human trafficking or substance abuse and addiction.

“While I support tougher penalties for habitual prostitutes, and plan to revisit it during session, I also recognize we must also address this crime from both ends simultaneously (supply and demand side),” Sobonya said in an email. “I was told some states are looking at creative ways to address prostitution from the demand side by passing laws going after the ‘John.’ ”

Lawmakers passed a bill dealing with human trafficking, House Bill 2318, during the regular legislative session, which ended April 9.

The bill established a felony offense and punishment for placing a person into forced labor, debt bondage and commercial sexual activity. Human trafficking was established as a felony offense, and someone convicted of the crime would face between three and 15 years in prison and a $200,000 fine.

If a minor is the victim of human trafficking, the punishment is increased to between five and 20 years in prison and up to $300,000 in fines.

In the new law, which is set to go into effect June 15, minors who are victims of human trafficking will have immunity from prosecution for prostitution, and adult human trafficking victims can have their records expunged if it’s found that the person was a victim of human trafficking.

The law also establishes harsher penalties for people who patronize sex workers who are victims of human trafficking, with a penalty of one to five years in jail if the victims are adults and three to 15 years if the victims are minors.

Lovejoy said he was sure legislative leaders would be interested in revisiting the law, but he said he didn’t know how they would work to change it.

Lovejoy said the trend recently has been to look at certain criminal law through the lens of substance abuse issues, and he thought HB 2318 was a good indication of how commercial sex crimes are viewed.

“Maybe what you’re seeing over the last couple of sessions of the legislature is more of a recognition that it’s a little more complicated than just an otherwise perfectly consenting adult entering into a commercial sexual activity and maybe more of a drug addiction manifesting in behavior,” Lovejoy said. “Not saying we excuse or endorse it, but maybe we should try looking at it for what it is and trying to get to the heart of the problem.”

Romine said he thought the court’s ruling was the right one, and the law should be revisited.

“I think we need to revisit it in terms of is the third offense felony helping cure the problem or is it just exasperating the problem,” Romine said. “If that’s their lifestyle, we need to try to do something to help them change. So many are strung out on drugs, and all they want is enough money to get the next fix. We need to help rehabilitate those people.”

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

And get our latest content in your inbox

Invalid email address