Massage parlor legislation moves ahead

Macon has an image it wants to shake: massage parlor capital.

The Middle Georgia city of about 100,000 people has about 25 massage parlors -- more per capita than Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington,, said state Sen. Cecil Staton (R-Macon).

But Staton and several community groups are hoping tougher state and local laws could shutter unsavory establishments that double as sex parlors and possibly engage in human trafficking.

“I think we can stamp it out if we just get a little more help,” Staton said.

More than 20 billboards advertising the services of these massage parlors and spas pepper a stretch of several miles along I-75 through Macon and Bibb County.

“A lot of my constituents see them advertised frequently and quite openly on 75,” Staton said.

He has a bill pending before the General Assembly that would allow law enforcement to prosecute the owners of these establishments -- not just the prostitutes -- and increase the likelihood of harsher penalties for repeat offenses.

The bill gives the state board that licenses massage therapists the authority to impose a $500 fine, not the $5,000 Staton initially proposed. The measure also would clarify that local officials -- including those in Macon and Bibb County -- are not barred under state law from establishing their own massage parlor ordinances.

The bill passed the state Senate earlier this year and has just cleared a House committee.

If it passes the General Assembly and is signed into law, third-time offenders could be prosecuted as felons, facing up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

“That would help us because it kicks it into another level,” Bibb County Chief Deputy David Davis said. “Some wouldn’t take long to get to a third offense.”

Davis said the city, which fronts one of the state’s busiest interstate highways, has seen a resurgence of massage parlors in the past seven or eight years.

Andrew Silver, a Mercer University professor and a leader in the Middle Georgia Alliance to End Regional Trafficking, said there are serious concerns that some of these local establishments, which employ mostly women from Southeast Asia, are “fronts for human trafficking.”

That’s often hard to prove since the victims have been threatened or brainwashed, Silver said.

Cracking down on these establishments has unified the community, he said.

“It’s one of the few issues that unites both sides of the political aisle,” Silver said. “We’re just a better city than this.”

Staton hopes his bill will help the law enforcement community, as well.

“It’s a tremendous amount of energy and embarrassing work for their officers to go through only to find that at the end of the day, if they charge the people, they get a slap on the wrist,” he said.