Friday, March 28, 2008

Children in the sex trade are victims, not criminals

Tallahassee Democrat * March 26, 2008

Sun-Sentinel * April 1, 2008

Wendi J. Adelson and Sandy Skelaney

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has received a fair share of sympathy for what some perceive as cruel and unusual punishment for bad choices that did little harm to anyone other than his family and himself.

Some say that prosecuting Spitzer to the full extent of the law for consensual conduct between adults would force arrest of all the "johns," which would overwhelm the legal system.

Left out of that debate, however, is that we already flood the system with prostitution arrests, but usually only the prostitutes are punished. This classic double standard further disempowers women and girls who may be victims of controlling and violent pimps.

Another provoking question that arises from the Spitzer fallout is what should happen to prostituted minors. Research has shown the average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 13 years old. That means that many of the girls assumed to be adult prostitutes are actually children who are being commercially sexually exploited.

Introduced in the Legislature this year is Florida HB 605 (sponsored by Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami), which offers some protection in a state that some experts consider ground zero in human trafficking. The legislation seeks to eliminate the "force, fraud or coercion" requirement for a child to prove that he or she was induced to perform a commercial sex act. This bill's passage would bring greater protection for prostituted children in this state, and it marks an important first step in addressing the needs of trafficked and prostituted children.

Children are extremely vulnerable and more easily manipulated and controlled by pimps and exploiters who often use violence to extract obedience. Shockingly enough, most criminal statutes around the country fail to distinguish between adult prostitution and the prostitution of children.

Those urging criminal law reform need to address whether the thousands of children who are prostituted should be treated as victims, the way the federal statute covering human trafficking treats them, or as criminals, the way many state statutes treat them.

In 2000, Congress enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to "combat trafficking in persons, a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children." With the TVPA in effect, it became indisputable that victims who might otherwise have been in violation of U.S. law (because of engagement in prostitution) are to be treated not as criminals, but instead as victims of crime.

Under the TVPA, sex trafficking of a minor is treated like statutory rape. However, counting the victims has proven very difficult. New York and Chicago estimate that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 children being exploited in prostitution in each of their respective cities.

We also know that there are as many as 2.8 million homeless youth in America today, one-third of whom will be solicited to sell sex within 48 hours of leaving home. The numbers are staggering, and there has yet to be a targeted study done in Florida that would reveal the numbers of children being exploited in the sex industry that exists in our back yards.

In Miami, there were 22 arrests of children for prostitution in 2007, but this number pales next to the 500 prostituted youth who were served by agencies. Several reasons explain why the number of prostituted children is larger than the arrest numbers would indicate.

First, children are usually picked up for other prostitution-related crimes such as loitering, disorderly conduct and other minor misdemeanors. Many prostituted children are also mistakenly arrested and processed as adults because of the difficulty in accurately determining their age. Runaway teens are often placed in detention.

It is also more difficult to charge someone with prostitution, because the amount of evidence needed to prove the crime is higher for prostitution than it is for disorderly conduct, for example.

Therefore, while it is almost impossible to possess exact statistics on the population of commercially sexually exploited children, it is known that the number is a large one.

Florida law, under HB 605, can begin to address this vulnerable and growing segment of the population.

No comments: