Two bills are going through the state legislature that would protect minors from being prosecuted for prostitution.
SB 1322 would forbid law enforcement from arresting or charging people under 18 for prostitution, while SB 1129 would eliminate minimum sentences for repeat offenders.
Proponents say minors are victims of sex trafficking and should not be punished for the crime, but opponents, including some district attorneys associations, argue that bills would disincentivize minors from testifying against human traffickers.
Jim Cooper is a former captain at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, who’s worked on a number of sex trafficking cases. He now represents District 9 in the state assembly, which includes Sacramento and the San Joaquin County communities of Elk Grove, Lodi and Galt.
He opposes SB 1322 because he believes the best way to separate sex trafficking victims from their captors is to arrest them. He says there “absolutely” will be more underage prostitution if the bill passes.
What are your concerns about SB 1322?
Every legislator that stood up last week said [underage prostitutes] are victims. They are truly victims — I believe in that.
While the intent of the bill is good, the bill does more harm to at-risk minors because right now the big issue is getting those girls away from the pimp. Obviously a lot of them have been brainwashed, and they’ve been told a lot of things. We want to separate them, and we also want to prosecute that pimp.
The way the bill’s written now, there’s no crime. It’s not a crime punishable by anything. So, if law enforcement thinks somebody’s engaged in prostitution, we cannot detain them, because it’s not a chargeable offense. That’s the big issue we’re facing right now. They want us to refer the girls somewhere else. There are routes available for the young girls. What they don’t mention is that currently that charge can be expunged.
The big thing is getting the girls away from the pimp separating them and getting them the help they need. Pimps are going to hire underage girls because law enforcement cannot contain them.
Frank Mecca leads the County Welfare Directors' Association of California, a nonprofit representing human services directors in the state.
He says there are existing ways to protect victims of sex trafficking without criminalizing them.
“It is absolutely clear that police can continue to detain a victim of sex trafficking,” Mecca said. “They’re child abuse victims. Police, under the law, have not just the authority, but the responsibility, to detain victims of abuse.”
How can law enforcement protect victims without arresting them?
If law enforcement has the suspicion that the child is being trafficked — the same suspicion that would lead them to arrest the child — they can, as an alternative to arresting the child, detain them under Welfare and Institutions Code Section 305, and they call the child welfare systems. The child welfare system then engages and protects the child and treats the child. That’s the way we deal with every other form of abuse. I think this is a very important point. There’s no other child abuse that children suffer that we arrest them for and incarcerate them for.
He suggested that Los Angeles County, which doesn’t arrest underage sex workers, sets a good example for the rest of California. Mecca said the county has programs to connect victims with those who’ve “left the life” as well as high-quality therapy to break the bonds between victim and abuser.
How does Los Angeles County address underage sex work?
In Los Angeles County, your county, they don’t arrest child victims of sex trafficking. There’s an elaborate protocol that all the players in your county put into place, because your county believes there is no such thing as a child prostitute.
So, law enforcement does not arrest. They actually detain. They detain under the same laws that the Assemblyman Cooper says don’t apply. They absolutely apply. The county brings services to bear. The child welfare system tries to find suitable housing. The mental health system provides high-quality, trauma-informed mental health services. The education system is involved.
It is not necessary to arrest and incarcerate young children who are the victims of abuse in order to protect as serve them. All of the research says that children heal better when they are treated as victims, not as criminals.
Holly Mitchell is a state senator representing Culver City and parts of Los Angeles. She introduced SB 1322. Mitchell emphasized that victims of sex trafficking are not criminals, and the law should reflect that.
“It would never occur with us to take a victim of domestic violence or a rape victim and charge him or her with a crime and put them in jail for ‘their protection.’ It’s completely illogical.”
The bills are scheduled for a final vote.
Frank Mecca, Executive Director of the County Welfare Directors' Association of California, a nonprofit representing human services director in the state
Jim Cooper, California State Assemblymember (D-Elk Grove), representing District 9 that includes Sacramento and San Joaquin County communities of Elk Grove, Lodi and Galt. He is a former captain at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked on a number of sex trafficking cases
This story has been updated.