Young girls forced into a life on the streets would not be charged with prostitution under a bill introduced by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). Instead girls under the age of 16 would be steered toward programs designed to rehabilitate them and keep them off the streets.
“This bill decreases the age of prostitution,” Unterman said. “Sixteen years old is the age of consent in Georgia, and anyone who is less than 16 will not be charged with prostitution. We consider them a victim, not a prostitute. They need care and counseling.”
Unterman said her bill would help create a “system of care” for the girls “while educating the public and those who come in contact” with the young girls. It would affect girls being pimped out on the streets, as well as girls working in massage parlors.
“We want to recognize what is wrong and get them into care,” Unterman said. “If you do it beforehand, it is less costly.”
Unterman, a registered nurse and social worker and vice chairwoman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, has long been an advocate on issues surrounding girls. It has not always been easy among her colleagues in state government.
“I could not talk about sex at the Capitol,” Unterman said, adding that she has already heard whispers that she is trying to decriminalize prostitution. “I was trying to talk to 50-, 60-, 70-year-old men about men trying to have sex with 14-year-olds.”
During the last session, she introduced a bill that passed and created better reporting of child sex trafficking. She also proposed a bill that would have charged people $5 to get into a strip club, with that money going toward the treatment of young prostitutes, and another bill that would have raised the age to get a stripping license from 18 to 21. Those last two bills failed, but Unterman plans to revisit them. This latest bill, she said, is a continuation of that work.
“I did not know that [child prostitution] was so pervasive. But go two blocks from the Capitol to the Greyhound bus station and you will see how bad it is,” Unterman said. “We are saving children’s lives.”
In Atlanta, trafficking and prostitution have become a major problem. In 2002, for example, the FBI broke up a ring of 14 men pimping girls as young as 10. In a report issued the following year, the bureau cited Atlanta as one of the 14 U.S. cities with the highest rates of children being used for prostitution.
Unterman cites a Juvenile Justice Fund study that estimates that 200 to 300 children are pimped in Atlanta each month, based on watching Web sites, calls to escort services and observation of known prostitution areas.
“Georgia was one of the first states to recognize and admit we had a problem,” Unterman said. “We changed laws and created a system of care. Other states are replicating what we are doing.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution