Massage parlor fight intensifies

Houses of prostitution disguised as massage parlors continue to bedevil lawmakers, police and some communities where they’ve become more than a mere nuisance.

In April, state lawmakers passed a bill that would let police arrest business owners suspected of running a thinly veiled brothel without having to catch anyone engaging in prostitution. Just offering or advertising unlicensed massages would become a crime, and repeat offenders would become felons.

But the question remains whether any piece of legislation can do much to stamp out a profession as old as civilization itself. State Rep. Cecil Staton (R-Macon), who sponsored the bill, believes its success will hinge on the will of prosecutors and local governments.

“They have to make a decision about what to go after,” Staton said, “and there is not always a lot of will to do something about it.”

Staton concedes that even residents in his community are divided in their opinions of the establishments.

Past efforts to crack down on illicit massage parlors have been hampered because the prostitution crimes associated with them are misdemeanors, punishable by less than a year in jail and fines of less than $1,000.

“It’s frustrating whenever we end up arresting the same individuals for the same crime repeatedly,” said Officer Brian Kelly, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department.

The bill expected to be signed by the governor in coming weeks would allow prosecutors to go after owners and operators for offering or advertising massages by those without state licenses. Penalties would escalate so that a third offense would be a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said the changes will make a significant difference.

“We’ve never been able to link the owners in,” Porter said.

Macon Police Lt. Kelly Monroe said investigators there have found beds in some of the establishments and noticed that the women working in them seem to come and go. Monroe believes they are being transferred, possibly through a network of human trafficking.

Special agents on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s anti-human trafficking team in Atlanta say women are being brought into the country on work visas from Asia, or driven across the border from Mexico, with the promise of a good job. Then they are forced into prostitution.

Perhaps those with the most to gain from the state effort are legitimate massage therapists. For too long, their good name has been smeared by unsavory activities unrelated to their industry, said Jane Johnson, who chairs the state Board of Massage Therapy. The board does not regulate massage therapy establishments. It approves licenses for individual massage therapists who meet strict requirements.

The proposed state law clarifies that while state-licensed massage therapists are exempt from city and county license requirements, new state provisions would not preclude city and county governments from passing their own massage parlor ordinances.

Businesses seeking to sell sex sometimes get around Georgia’s massage law and local ordinances by advertising themselves as tanning salons, foot spas, or other personal services.

About two dozen massage parlors and similar businesses were operating in Macon earlier this year. Beth Duncan, an attorney for the city, drafted a carefully worded local ordinance that council members approved May 4. The ordinance attempts to apply to any and all businesses that could be used to disguise prostitution.

“The minute you try to define them as something, they change to something else,” Duncan said.