California’s human-trafficking industry is scandalously large. In 2015, approximately 293 cases of trafficking involving minors were reported by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. This year, the tally has already hit 200 such cases. Rather than accepting the advice of the authorities who work with victims, California lawmakers have chosen a different route: to pass bills that work in theory, not reality.
Last week, the California state legislature sent SB 823 and SB 1322 to Governor Jerry Brown. The bills seek to decriminalize prostitution for minors and, as SB 823 states, allow “a person arrested or convicted of a nonviolent crime while he or she was a human trafficking victim to apply to the court to vacate the conviction and seal and destroy records of arrest.”
“All we are doing in perpetuating current law is saying, ‘You are not the victim, you are the criminal,’” Democratic assemblyman Mark Stone said. “Let’s say collectively there is no such thing as a child prostitute because there is no such thing as a child prostitute.”
But no one is disputing whether there is such thing as a child prostitute. The debate is over determining the best way to put an end to the sex trafficking that has plagued California’s largest cities.
Sean Hoffman, the director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association, spoke in opposition to the bills, explaining that everyone agrees that prostitutes under 18 are victims, not criminals. “Where we differ is in how much faith we have in the dependency side of the juvenile system to effectively handle this population,” he said.
In a letter to Democratic state senator Marty Block last April, Hoffman described the harm that will ensue if Brown signs SB 823 into law. It “would promote criminal conduct by creating an incentive for traffickers to enlist their victims to commit crimes,” Hoffman argued, with traffickers “knowing full well that the people they press into service will not be held responsible for their actions.”
In addition, opponents of decriminalizing prostitution for a minor believe that law-enforcement officers would be unable to do their job. It would render seizures unconstitutional, as the minor’s actions would be lawful and officers must mind the individual’s rights. Under SB 1322, an officer has the authority to take minors into temporary custody only “if leaving them unattended would pose an immediate threat to their health or safety.”
Jane Creighton, the coordinator of the human-trafficking unit at the office of the Los Angeles County district attorney, suggested that legislators take a step back before passing SB 823 and SB 1322. Creighton told the Los Angeles Times that law-enforcement personnel must be able to arrest the minors and keep them in secure facilities because many will not voluntarily accept the services provided them.
Prosecutors and social workers described these victims as “young, vulnerable women, tied to their abusers through complicated psychological and emotional bonds,” according to the Times. Hoffman echoed similar sentiments with regard to SB 1322. “If they can’t keep a victim in a facility long enough for a provider to reach that child with services, then we undermine the efforts of a number of great community-based organizations that are having tremendous success in servicing victims of human trafficking,” he said.
Another unintended outcome, noted by the California District Attorneys Association and other law-enforcement groups, is that the decriminalization of prostitution for minors would give them no incentive to testify against their pimps, making it nearly impossible to prosecute the real criminals. It is clear that many relevant California authorities oppose SB 823 and SB 1322, but California’s legislature has made the decision to send the bills to the governor’s desk.
“Right now, service groups are struggling with what they have in place — there [are] just not enough resources,” Creighton concluded. “I am not saying these bills should never pass. But we are not ready for them right now.”
Let’s hope Governor Brown agrees.