Los Angeles County is employing a unique approach to get women out of the sex trade.
The county is the nation's most populous with more than 10 million residents — and it's widely regarded as the U.S. epicenter for human trafficking, mostly women forced into prostitution.
The program employed by the sheriff's department aims to get handcuffs on the traffickers and the men who pay for sex while offering services to sex workers who often are vulnerable children and young adults forced to sell their bodies to enrich their pimps.
The technique was on display recently in Compton. Police arrested 17 men who solicited undercover deputies and took seven women and a 13-year-old girl who were being trafficked to a processing center where counselors met them.
The women shared intimate details about their lives and the counselors used the information to assist with emergency housing and social services. Attorneys were on hand to help assess their legal needs, which can include domestic violence, child custody issues and discussing whether prior convictions could be expunged.
The sheriff's department partners with nonprofit groups, including The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, whose counselors are embedded with deputies throughout the year and go out on sting operations to help rescue sex workers.
Becca Channel, the group's human trafficking task force coordinator, said the array of immediate help provides the foundation that can lead to women starting new lives. Still, not all are interested.
"Sometimes they want services and sometimes they just tell us to go away," said Sarah Leddy, one of the group's attorneys.
The teenagers who end up involved in prostitution typically are runaways from unstable homes or foster homes where they experienced violence or sexual abuse. Pimps often portray themselves as a father figure or a boyfriend for young girls, promising them money and a glamorous lifestyle.
That is hardly ever the case.
"Their whole life is usually one of neglect and abuse leading up to this point and by us just arresting them they are back out the next day and doing the same thing," said Capt. Chris Marks, commander of the sheriff's department's Human Trafficking Bureau. "We're not looking to prosecute these girls as sex workers. We want them off the street."
Statistics compiled by the National Human Trafficking Hotline show California leads the country in reports of sex trafficking.
"I think every big city is a hotbed for this, but a lot of it starts in LA and moves eastward," said sheriff's Lt. Barry Hall.
He led the recent sting operation, which had its first catch four minutes after an undercover deputy began pacing on a street corner. A man slowly rolled up in his sedan, leaned out the window and bluntly propositioned her.
"You gotta pay for that," she replied, telling the man it would be $40.
"Will you do a good job?" he asked.
After he agreed to meet her around the corner and turned down an alleyway, his car was surrounded by deputies and he was put in handcuffs.
"We go to get the girls who are being exploited, go after the guys who are exploiting them and try to impact the demand," Hall said. "If there's no one out there buying them there'll be no one selling and that's why we want to get as many guys in custody as we can."