Despite the fact that for the past year Massachusetts has been armed with a new law to crack down on human trafficking and the people who pay for sex, a New England Center for Investigative Reporting report found that most men arrested in Suffolk County for buying sex, known as "johns," get their charges dropped. This is the first in a four-part series on the challenges police encounter when going after "johns." Read parts two, three and four.

A woman who describes herself as a former prostitute stood on the sidewalk on lower Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester just outside of the organization she now works for, Women Connecting Affecting Change, which helps prostituted women get back on their feet.

“People on Blue Hill Avenue buy sex.  But instead of arresting the women you need to arrest those johns driving up and down the street.  That’s what irks me.  So you arrest women but you do nothing to the guys that’s buying the sex," she said.  

Massachusetts has tried but with limited success. In 2011, the state passed a law to not only protect victims of sex trafficking but to increase penalties for people who pay for sex. But an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting finds this tough talk has had limited impact.  Scores of men have been arrested, but few are convicted or fined.

Groups trying to stop sex trafficking believes society looks differently at men buying sex from women who are selling their bodies. At a news conference in August Boston Police Superintendent Daniel Linskey pointed to a new direction.

“We acknowledge that law enforcement must shift attention from criminalizing the actions of the victims and commit to eradicating demand with an aggressive police action,” Linskey said.

Yet after the Boston Police Human Trafficking Unit apprehended six men in downtown Boston for allegedly soliciting underage girl—not one has spent any time behind bars. 

The arrests were trumpeted in a press release from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, with emphasis on the efficacy of the new anti-trafficking statute, which increased minimum fines up to a$1,000 and five years jail time for individuals who try to purchase sex from minors online. But two years after enactment of the law, prostituted women and girls are still paying a greater price in the courts than their customers.  

It’s important to point out, however, that some of the arrested men were first time offenders, and that usually results in more lenient sentences.  But anti-trafficking experts argue that prostituted women arrested for the first time statistically are still far more likely to spend time in jail than a john charged with a first-time offense. 

And it’s not just in Boston, according to Sidharth Kara who lectures on human trafficking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“One interesting statistic, depending on what state you’re in, is that you’ll see anywhere from 5 to 10 women arrested for breaking a prostitution law for every one male purchaser or john arrested for breaking the same law, purchasing someone or soliciting commercial sex.  So there is some asymmetry and bias in the system.”

That asymmetry is clear from documents and data examined by NECIR.  It found that not one of the 11 Massachusetts District Attorney’s offices could point to a single case where a sex buyer received even the minimum $1,000 fine. 

As far as jail time?  Non-existent for “johns” since the anti-trafficking law was enacted.  It’s an issue I raised at a press conference on human trafficking with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley:

“I certainly think that the work we’re doing with the DA’s and local police departments is going to be important to get that message out.  And it’s also courts.  It’s probation officers.  Keep in mind that we are now trying to change the lens after decades if not centuries of a focus on that.  It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said.

And it’s not for a lack of trying. Sergeant Donna Gavin of the Boston Police Human Trafficking Unit – working with the Family Justice Center- works overtime to try to bring charges against johns.  

“We’ve had women who are horribly abused by the johns. Recently there was a woman with a broken jaw.  It was a john that did that.  So, we work with other forces in law enforcement, as well as non-governmental organizations to try to keep young women out of the sex trade and to prosecute those that are responsible for exploiting them,” Gavin said. 

But these efforts are often countermanded by limited resources and lax prosecution of johns.   

I stood in the lobby of a hotel just outside of Boston, where according to police sources pimps- using the Internet to advertise- traffic underage girls.

Lisa Goldblatt-Grace heads up My Life My Choice, an organization set up to assist exploited girls in the Boston area. She said girls report having exchanged sex 10 to 20 times per night.

“Pimp comes by picks up the money.  And what it looks like for victims is they are that much more invisible,” she said. “We can a as a city say ‘We’ve gotten rid of this problem, I don’t see it when I go to a theatre on a Saturday night.’”

Goldblatt-Grace said technology has made it that much easier for sex buyers to connect to prostituted minors and women risk free.

“They can do that in the privacy of their home. Their car. As long as you have a smart phone.  There’s no risk that you’re taking when you’re sitting on your cell phone. You’re making a quick phone call.  You’re walking from a hotel lobby into a room.  The risk of arrests goes down.  The risk of being seen goes down.  The impact of it really impacting your life and your family goes down.”  

And when they are caught says Audrey Morrissey, a survivor of teenage prostitution, the culture of leniency towards johns still makes such encounters largely risk free:

“The reality is most of them have sex with young girls because they can.  Because they can.  Because they can.”

Morrissey, associate director of My Life My Choice, said her point is illustrated by this example:

“I remember they did a bust in some town outside of Boston years ago and the police chief said ‘we use the johns to bust the prostitutes.  We let them go because we didn’t want to further embarrass them.’”

An examination of 2012 state and federal data shows that prostituted women are arrested twice as much as the men who purchase their services.

Psychologist Melissa Farley surveyed a group of Boston-area men who buy sex and a group that does not.  She found that relatively mild penalties seem to encourage sex buyers to carry on business as usual.  But when Farley asked johns what they believed the most effective deterrent is, they told her:

“Being placed on a sex offender registry. This really takes the glamor out of prostitution to be placed on a list of predators alone with pedophiles and rapists.  Also very effective deterrent was any amount of jail time.”

Defense attorneys contacted by WGBH described these responses as extreme.  None agreed to be recorded, but one public defender said the policing of prostitution is quote “over-zealous” and condemned what she described as quote so-called human trafficking, which is really just simple prostitution trumped up to force a guilty plea out of people”

The attorney described sex offenders as “vulnerable targets” and added:If you want to see a life unravel before your eyes, represent a person accused of a sex offense. It's truly a harrowing experience.”

But Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is not sympathetic:

“I personally think anyone participating in this life but especially taking advantage of these very young girls, they should be charged and there should be stiff penalties and consequences, in particular since many of them are married men living pristine suburban existences and if there were stricter penalties and consequences perhaps we can reduce the demand.”  

On lower Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, men drive up and down the street looking to score.  It’s 30 degrees outside and one young woman standing at a bus stop in a thin coat approaches my car.  A man sitting in a van a block away pays close attention. Very close attention.  My guess is that the woman pretending to catch a bus is no older than 17 or 18 but she insist that she’s 26.

REPORTER:  You are 26 years old.   

WOMAN:  Yes, I’m 26.  

REPORTER:  OK, you don’t look 26. 

WOMAN:  No, but I am 26.   I promise you.  I wouldn’t lie to you. 

REPORTER:  OK, how long have you been out here? 

WOMAN:  I just got out here.  Yeah, I just got out. Can I get in cause we really on a Main Road. Can I get in so we can talk? 

The conversation ends when I reveal I’m a reporter.   Two survivors of the underground trade sitting outside said they’ve seen all types of johns on this street :

“Young teenage boys.  Older men. Guys that’s supposed to be working riding their trucks up and down.  Correctional officers.   You have everybody buying sex.  Trust me when I tell you, you have everybody buying sex,” said one woman.

NECIR found that in Suffolk County the majority of men arrested on charges of buying sex simply walk away.  Of 82 men arrested over the past year most avoided guilty convictions through dismissals, pre-trial probation and other legal maneuvering.    

Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said he is frustrated with the status quo.

“I think we need to cut off the demand.  We need to prosecute johns for taking advantage of prostituted women.  If we begin to do that in a meaningful way in society as they’re doing in other societies.  We might be able to end human trafficking.”

A defense attorney wrote to WGBH News to argue that prostitution should be legalized and to complain that her clients ---prostituted girls and women---are still being picked up, prosecuted and jailed, even as their customers are only being slapped with fines and sometimes being made to watch educational videos on the horrors of pimping and human trafficking. 

This story was produced in partnership with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative reporting unit based at both Boston University and WGBH News.