Pro & Con: Should prostitution be decriminalized for minors?

By Mark Hoerrner

At 3:30 a.m., Tanya is standing on Fulton Industrial Boulevard waiting for her manager to pick her up. She’s 15 years old and has no business being out. Within an hour, she’ll become the victim of commercial rape, bought through an Internet ad placed by her pimp on multiple Web sites. She’s become accustomed to this nightly routine. After all, she’s been doing it since she was 13.

Tanya is one of more than 400 teenage victims of commercial sexual exploitation who are bought and sold monthly on the streets of Atlanta, which means there are likely many hundreds more on Georgia’s streets. She is the face of human trafficking. She’s not old enough to rent a car. She can’t legally rent a hotel room. She doesn’t act on her own but at the demands of her pimp. And despite the efforts of multiple organizations, most of these children have little hope for a change in their situation.

Police agencies in Atlanta and in most of the five major metro counties have received training in avoiding arresting juvenile victims of prostitution on charges of solicitation but choose instead to arrest on less criminal offenses such as truancy, loitering and similar minor misdemeanor crimes. Unfortunately, these acts of compassion by dedicated officers obscure the truth — that victims of prostitution do not need jail time but rather counseling, care and restoration.

Hotly debated bills before the Georgia Legislature are calling for changes to how we take custody of these victims as they enter the justice system. According to the U.N., the European Union and the key federal law on modern-day slavery — the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — any child under 18 used for the purposes of commercial sex is not only a victim of human trafficking but a victim of an extreme form of the crime. Why, then, are groups in Georgia fighting so hard to continue placing these children in jail rather than in Georgia’s system of care?

Perhaps these groups see this as the beginning of a slippery slope toward legalizing prostitution. That never has — and never will — be the goal. Prostitution, where it has been legalized, has repeatedly failed because it creates new markets for human trafficking. In our state, multiple coalitions like StreetGrace support not only the toughening of our laws to root out and prosecute the true criminals — the pimps and exploiters — but also the addition of creative methods to protect Georgia’s children.

Opponents of these bills contend this will lead to an explosion of new prostitution, but there is no data for this. What we do know is that child trafficking tends to be highest in large metro cities like Atlanta but happens in many places you may know — Carrollton, Cartersville, Ringgold, Kennesaw, Alpharetta, Macon, Augusta, Columbus, Savannah and many other cities.

In training with more than 40 law enforcement officers last fall, I was taught how a justice system designed to handle adult offenders breaks down when used to prosecute children. Most of the juvenile victims were assaulted or abused as early as 8 or 9 years old, and weren’t treated.

The legislation under consideration doesn’t alter our criminal code or provide loopholes for offenders — it simply charts a course for a victim to be able to find some measure of justice and care within our system.

On our current course, Atlanta alone will see more than 600 children prostituted on its streets monthly by 2013. Our legal system wasn’t created to punish children; it was crafted to punish criminals. If we do not act now, thousands of Georgia’s children will be shunted through an uncompromising judicial process that serves only to trap these children in an unending cycle of rape, abuse, imprisonment and injustice.

Mark Hoerrner, with Ethical Living Inc., has seen child exploitation locally and internationally.

NO: Don’t create a friendly environment for pimps and johns.

By Dale Austin

Almost a decade ago, little girls in Georgia churches raised $50,000 to rescue prostituted children in India. Holding bake sales and car washes, they labored for a year to buy out the contracts of victims of human trafficking, sold in Bombay for $200 a piece.

It was an unnerving project to announce from small-town pulpits, but the girls were outraged, passionate in their collection of quarters and dimes, and would not be stopped until prostituted children were rescued one contract at a time.

The same visceral response is repeated each time someone realizes that children are involved in what is unimaginable to the average citizen. When you learn about it, you want to stop it — to fight it with all your strength — and to make sure no other children will be hurt by it, ever.

Recently the Georgia Legislature has been made aware that child prostitution has become big business in Atlanta. They want to do something to stop it and have proposed changes to the law. Unfortunately, what has been proposed is not an effective way to end the problem. In actuality, what has been proposed is legislation that would make Georgia the first state in the nation to decriminalize prostitution for minors.

SB 304 removes all discretion by the juvenile judge on how to handle cases involving “unruly” children found in prostitution. By removing all discretion from the judge, “unruly” children engaged in prostitution will not be charged with a crime. The bill deems as “unruly” any minor under the age of 17 found in prostitution, thereby decriminalizing it for minors.

Two House bills seek to decriminalize prostitution for offenders under the age of 18 and under the age of 16, respectively. While we recognize that the boys and girls exploited by prostitution are often trapped in a cycle of pimp control, drug abuse and criminal activity, there are better ways to help such victims than this ill-advised legislation.

Decriminalizing prostitution creates a friendly environment for pimps and traffickers. Pimps can use this proposed bill as a recruiting tool by telling the kids, prostitution is OK; it’s not a crime for them. Proponents of the bill disagree with us. They say it will always be a crime to prostitute children in Georgia.

Concerned Women for America recognizes that the proposed legislation does not decriminalize the prostitution of children by their exploiters. Georgia already has strong laws to address that issue. What the bills do is decriminalize prostitution by minors. While current law makes it illegal for a child to prostitute themselves, the proposed legislation would end that.

Other jurisdictions have proven that there are better alternatives to decriminalization. Upon arrest, victims can be identified and placed in diversionary programs designed for rescue and rehabilitation. They can also be provided with an affirmative defense to criminal charges and have their records expunged. But in all these cases, the arrest is the action that allows for the intervention leading to education or rehabilitation.

Vigorous law enforcement of traffickers and johns will make prostitution less profitable and thereby make it harder to sustain. Enforcing the laws on the books against johns and pimps should be the focus of law enforcement — without demand, prostitution and sex trafficking do not exist.

We recognize that the Georgia Legislature is anxious to become a national leader in the fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. But at a time when the entire juvenile code is being considered for revision, when the state budget is being squeezed to fit existing programs, let’s take the time to do this right.

Dale Austin is legislative liaison for Concerned Women for America of Georgia.

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