Jasmine R. was pimped and sold for sex on this city’s streets when she was 17. Then she was arrested and locked up for it.
This summer, the 20-year-old stood before a state Senate committee to plead for a new approach to combating underage prostitution. Legislators complied. Some even wept.
Without a single “no” vote, the Assembly and Senate passed AB 3042 -- unusually smooth sailing for a bill that enhances prison penalties.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the legislation. But if he signs it, the law would add a year to the maximum prison sentence of those convicted of any sexual offense with a minor committed for money or other considerations.
But customers of juvenile prostitutes could still be prosecuted under more liberal solicitation laws, or not at all, as often occurs.
Even so, proponents call the legislation revolutionary.
By strengthening laws on statutory rape and other child sexual abuse, it would enable prosecutors to threaten customers with serious prison time. A conviction under the laws would compel perpetrators to register as sex offenders, labeling them pedophiles for life. That could deter potential customers. Most important, proponents note, the law would transform the status of sexually exploited children -- from criminals to victims.
If such laws were used against the customers, underage prostitutes would become eligible for victim compensation and other social services.
Free from stigma as lawbreakers, they might begin to heal, proponents say.
“It’s a sea change in terms of how this issue has been dealt with through the ages,” said San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, who pushed aggressively for the bill, as well as for the city’s first safe house for underage prostitutes, scheduled to open next year. “It’s finally in black and white, legislated, that adults cannot buy children for sex.”
Harris teamed up with Norma Hotaling, executive director of San Francisco’s nonprofit Standing Against Global Exploitation, and Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who carried the bill. Their effort comes at a time when global trafficking of children for sex is receiving increasing attention.
A report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice three years ago concluded that 200,000 to 300,000 children in the U.S. are in the sex trade or trafficked into prostitution. About 85% are believed to have previously suffered incest, rape or abuse at home, the report said, calling the problem “the most hidden form of child abuse in the U.S. and North America today.”
Harris had seen the effects up close as a deputy district attorney prosecuting sex abuse cases in Alameda County. Once, she set out to search for a young girl who had been sexually assaulted, and found her for sale on San Francisco’s streets. On one side of the bay, the girl was a victim, abused at home, who could not legally consent to sexual activity. On the other, she was entering the justice system as a perpetrator.
The criminalization of youths has created a throwaway class that “people can exploit and rape,” said Hotaling, a former prostitute who has worked for more than a dozen years to help others rebuild their lives.
A few years ago, Hotaling and Harris served on a San Francisco County task force on the sexual exploitation of youths. Data were sparse, but anecdotal evidence suggested that child prostitution was on the rise. Among the recommendations was a safe house, modeled in part on one operated by Los Angeles’ Children of the Night, a privately funded nonprofit group that has been helping child prostitutes get off the streets for 25 years.
Harris’ election as district attorney last fall helped move the issues to the front burner, Hotaling said, who knew their chances of making legislative headway in Sacramento had improved. The women had little trouble persuading Yee to carry the bill.
Yee, a former child psychologist, plans to introduce legislation next year that would make human trafficking across county lines a crime. (Trafficking across state lines is a federal crime.) “We are trying to add another year of prison to these johns and then refocus the attention on these children with a helping perspective,” he said.
Children of the Night founder and President Lois Lee was not familiar with Yee’s bill but called it “a step in the right direction by creating victims’ status for these kids.” Still, she said it raises troubling questions. What if a customer doesn’t know a prostitute is underage? Would prosecutors apply the law fairly?
Prosecutors also have not uniformly embraced the idea. Customers are often called upon to testify against pimps, and Hotaling said the notion of cracking down hard on them through child sex abuse laws was dismissed by many at a 2002 U.S. Department of Justice conference as too extreme.
Jasmine R., who works for Hotaling’s organization, attended that conference too, pressing her case. She told the group she had once been under the control of a notorious San Francisco street pimp.
“You can’t take back what’s already been done to others and me,” she said, “but you have to stop what is still happening.”