PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island- Sex is for sale in the Rhode Island state capital, and police say there's little they can do about it.
Although soliciting sexual favors on the street is illegal in the east-coast U.S. state, authorities say a loophole in state law allows prostitution behind closed doors - including in storefronts that advertise as massage parlors and spas just blocks from City Hall.
"We don't have a law criminalizing prostitution indoors," said Providence Police Lt. Thomas Verdi, who leads the department's anti-prostitution efforts.
Police and city officials have pushed for legislation to toughen anti-prostitution laws, although some say adding more laws to punish prostitutes is unnecessary.
State law prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution, as well as harboring or transporting prostitutes. But the sale of sex indoors is not specifically banned.
Providence Police Lt. Thomas Verdi, who leads the department's anti-prostitution efforts, said there are about 10 spas that serve as fronts for prostitution in the city, including at least two near City Hall.
A woman who answered the phone at Bally Day Spa said it was not a house of prostitution. Midori Spa could not be reached by phone for comment.
Verdi said police have raided nearly every suspect spa and massage parlor in Providence and charged women there with prostitution, but the charges were thrown out because they are not doing anything illegal.
"None have closed their doors, because they don't have to," he said. "They continue to operate, continue to ship in their girls."
Michael Healey, spokesman for the Attorney General's office, said there are laws on the books that can be used to prosecute prostitution that takes place indoors. But he said tougher laws are needed to help police.
"There's just no explicit language in that statute that says ... it is illegal for a john to pay a prostitute for sex in a room or in a spa or in a motel or something," Healey said.
Steven Brown, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he does not understand why Providence police believe prostitution is decriminalized.
"The current laws on the books have real teeth in them and are available for use right now," he said.
For example, he said police could establish a connection with a prostitute willing to cooperate with police, although Verdi said that is extremely difficult.
Police also need proof of a sex-for-money exchange, which is difficult, said Joseph Moran, police chief in Central Falls, who is also a state representative.
Earlier this year, lawmakers considered legislation that would have made prostitution a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a US$1,000 (euro806) fine. But the bills died amid criticism that they targeted prostitutes rather than those who exploit them.
"I want to get at the source, not the poor woman who was being used in this way," said state Sen. Rhoda Perry, a Providence Democrat who sponsored the Senate legislation but later withdrew it.
Brown said he doubted police would be able to get at pimps by punishing prostitutes with new laws.
"I'm not sure that the prospect of a six-month jail sentence is going to convince them to snitch," he said.
Garry Bliss, director of policy and legislative affairs for Providence Mayor David Cicilline, said revised legislation to target prostitution would be introduced when the state's General Assembly convenes next year.
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