The Los Angeles County District Attorney says she wants her office to treat minors arrested for sex-related crimes as victims, not criminals.
The DA's office announced Wednesday a new diversion program called First Step aimed at girls and boys ages 12 to 17 years old who are arrested for sex-related crimes such as prostitution. The one-year program would give the minor counseling, medical and social services to steer them away from the street and traffickers.
For those minors that agree to enter the program and complete it, the original charge will be cleared.
“We want to give these children a chance to rebuild their lives,” said L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Between 2000 and 2010, the DA’s office has filed petition against 2,188 juveniles caught soliciting prostitution or loitering for solicitation.
“We in law enforcement mostly ignored the underlying issues,” Lacey said.
Where to house teens during the program has always been a tricky issue. Often the girls and boys will run away from foster homes back to the trafficker. But placing them in juvenile hall has the feeling of incarceration.
“We believe that we should help these children, not detain them,” Lacey said.
The program will be rolled out in the Sylmar and Compton areas because of the number of arrests there and because the minors arrested actually live in that community.
The minors that agree to participate will be housed in a private, secret shelters much like women's shelters set up for victims of domestic abuse, she said.
“It’s going to be a matter of patience, a matter of counseling and a matter of encouraging that child to remain with us where they will be safe,” Lacey said.
Minors without serious offenses in the background who have cases pending will be eligible to enroll in the First Step diversion program. The DA’s office estimates there are roughly 500 to 1,000 juveniles currently in that situation.
This story has been updated.