UPDATED: Supervisors want state to raise fines, add prison time for soliciting child prostitutes

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

A young girl writes, "I've been through it too...it's okay," on a brick as away to deal with the experiences of forced prostitution at an empowerment conference for girls.

Los Angeles County supervisors think California is too easy on men caught enlisting the services of child prostitutes - and will be urging the legislature to change that.

Supervisors Mark Riddley-Thomas and Don Knabe introduced a motion at Tuesday's meeting calling on state lawmakers to close what they call a "loophole" in otherwise tough penalties for those involved in the sex trafficking trade. Under current state law, people soliciting prostitution can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000.

The motion, passed unanimously, asks the state legislature to raise those penalties in cases where the person being paid for sex is under 18 years old - making it a felony with a minimum fine of $10,000 and a requirement to register as a sex offender. 

A swath of law enforcement and public officials showed up in support of the measure, including Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonald and Compton Mayor Aja Brown.

L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey told supervisors that she wholeheartedly supported the measure to go after "the market" for child prostitutes. However, she warned that law enforcement has not been highly successful catching clients in the past.

"Most of the johns we catch are via vice officers who pose as children," Lacey said during the meeting. "It is very difficult actually to catch a john in the act."

During the meeting, Riddley-Thomas said he's heard from several California lawmakers interested in sponsoring the legislation.

The motion also expresses support for The End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013, a federal bill that would add federal penalties for people caught soliciting sex from minors.

Laws are evolving around child prostitution. For many years, law enforcement tried to cut down on prostitution by arresting and prosecuting those offering the services. Recently, the focus has shifted to cracking down on pimps and treating women and girls who offer sex for money more as victims.

In 2012, Los Angeles County developed a rehabilitation program for girls under 16 who are arrested for prostitution. The program pairs each girl with a mentor who steers her to resources and provides a degree of stability and care that are often lacking in the girls' lives. The program also requires the girls to attend conferences where they share their experiences and receive self-esteem training.

The county also operates a "john's school" for men caught soliciting prostitutes. In that program, in lieu of jail, first-time offenders can attend classes designed to educate them about the ills of the sex trade and scare them off returning as customers. If the offenders graduate the program and aren't arrested again within a year, their criminal records are cleared of the offense. 

County supervisors said trafficking remains a serious issue in Los Angeles. According to Knabe and Riddley-Thomas, of a sample of 72 girls in the county's child prostitute rehabilitation program, 56 had been referred to child welfare officials and 42 were foster children.

The business of selling child sex is a lucrative one: the supervisors estimate a pimp can make $162,500 a year per child, while facing much lower risk of prison time compared to drug trafficking.

But while federal and state laws have evolved to treat pimps more as hardcore criminals, the same is not true for those who make up the demand side of the business, Riddley-Thomas and Knabe said.

If the motion passes, a crackdown on those soliciting child prostitutes will be added to the county's legislative agenda, which then is conveyed to legislators in Sacramento.

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