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California lawmakers advance bill to decriminalize prostitution for minors

A billboard sponsored by the San Diego County district attorney's office reads: "Being a prostituted teen isn't a choice, it's slavery." (San Diego County district attorney)
A billboard sponsored by the San Diego County district attorney's office reads: "Being a prostituted teen isn't a choice, it's slavery." (San Diego County district attorney)

A controversial bill that would decriminalize prostitution for minors squeezed out of the California Assembly on Thursday and is now headed back to the Senate for a final vote.

SB 1322, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would make the crimes of solicitation and loitering with intent to commit prostitution misdemeanors inapplicable to children younger than 18. It also would allow law enforcement to take sexually exploited children into temporary custody if leaving them unattended would pose an immediate threat to their health or safety. 

The measure passed Thursday with a 42-29 vote. It was one of two bills heard Thursday seeking to decriminalize prostitution.

SB 1129, authored by Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for specified prostitution offenses. It moved out of Assembly with a 42-26 vote and is also headed back to the Senate for a final vote.  

Legislation to curb human trafficking has been a prominent issue at the state Capitol this session, as prosecutors and advocates in recent years have pushed the issue to the political forefront. Most of the proposals have focused on the trade of forced sex and reflect a cultural shift in the approach to prostitution that aims to divert victims forced into the industry away from the criminal justice system.

Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 signed legislation placing sex trafficking victims without legal guardians under the authority of the dependency system, which centers on caring for abused and neglected children. 

SB 1322 drew the support of a large coalition of advocates who said the bill was a step further in that direction, taking young victims entirely out of the juvenile justice system. But law enforcement officials oppose the move, saying the state's child welfare system is woefully low on resources.

On the Assembly floor, lawmakers agreed the legislation was well-intentioned and promoted the idea that “there is no such thing as a child prostitute," as children cannot legally consent to sex.

But while supporters of the bill argued that it would provide a better way to connect young victims with social services, opponents countered that it would prevent law enforcement from helping vulnerable children who often don’t see themselves as victims, run away from unsecured shelters and remain tied to their traffickers through complicated psychological and emotional bonds.

“Right now the best way to get these young women help, the best way to rescue them from this lifestyle is by keeping law enforcement involved through the ability to arrest,” Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) said. “Maybe in a few years from now, when we are doing better job at both the state and local level, we will better equipped and ready for this bill because services to young women will be readily available. But we are not there yet.”

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), who co-authored the bill, said the Legislature had put $20 million in this year’s budget to address the issue. Forty of 58 counties, he said, had already applied for funding to develop social services, shelters and other programs.

“All we are doing in perpetuating current law is saying, ‘You are not the victim, you are the criminal,’” he said. “Let’s say collectively there is no such thing as a child prostitute because there is no such thing as a child prostitute.”

Other lawmakers agreed. 

"This is not the end of it," Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) said. "This is the beginning of us thinking differently about the problem." 

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