Los Angeles County officials are calling on California’s lawmakers to come down harder on individuals soliciting sex with minors.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion on Tuesday, Sept. 3 to lobby for state legislation that would increase penalties for “johns” who “sexually exploit children.” According to county officials, child-sex trafficking continues to be a persistent problem in the county, sometimes involving children as young as 10 years old.
The motion, which was co-sponsored by Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Don Knabe, asks legislators to make the penalty for johns who solicit or engage in any act of paying for sex with underage children a felony rather than a misdemeanor and require violators to register as sex offenders.
The board also requests that fines for violating the law be increased from up to $1,000 to a minimum of $10,000 with a significant portion of the funds collected going to services for child-sex-trafficking victims. Under the proposed changes to the law, a conviction would require that the offender’s home address and other information be disclosed on the Megan’s Law website.
County officials point to a California Child Welfare Council report entitled “Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California,” which highlights key areas regarding child-sex trafficking that officials say need to be addressed.
According to a county staff report, many of the children forced into prostitution come from foster care and are under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Children in the county’s dependency system are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking.
In California, prostitution is a misdemeanor offense, and an adult who has sex with a child, whether consensual or not, is guilty of statutory rape. However, under the State’s current court system, children are often the ones criminalized and charged with prostitution or a prostitution-related offense, while johns remain faceless and criminal-record free, merely getting a “slap on the wrist,” said county officials.
“These violent crimes against children would not happen without the johns, but the State’s laws as currently written are not strong enough to make prosecution of these adults feasible, even though under any other circumstance they would be guilty of statutory rape,” states a county staff report on the motion. “This is a loophole that must be closed. There should be no ‘get out of jail free’ card for people who violate children.”
Supervisor Knabe said in an emailed statement to his constituents that the County has been focusing on the issue of child-sex trafficking for almost two years, and legislators should take further action to address the “demand” side of the crime.
“We have spent a great deal of time working on the services end of this issue, to do whatever we can to help these girls get their lives on the right track and to prevent others from being exploited,” Knabe stated. “We have a good opportunity now, as the new legislative season in Sacramento is gearing up, to continue to promote awareness of this horrific problem and develop effective legislation to help the victims and to go after the scumbags who purchase and sell girls for sex.”
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said in a phone interview that the proposal for new legislation would give law enforcement an additional tool to be able prosecute johns and have “a little more teeth in the law.”
“Right now it’s a misdemeanor to solicit prostitution from anybody, and, if you’re actually able to prosecute somebody for completing the sex act with somebody who is a minor, it’s statutory rape,” he said. “But short of being able to prosecute for that… basically, what the john would get would be a slap on the wrist, if anything.”
McDonnell pointed out that the term “prostitute” shouldn’t even be applied to children in the sex trade, since “pimps” often prey on girls who come from broken homes or the foster-care system and force many of them into it.
“While the act looks like prostitution, these kids are forced into it and coerced or threatened in some way to participate in this,” he said. “Basically, it’s a form of human slavery where the pimps are making all the money off of what the girls are engaged in.”
Recently, gangs have been looking at the sex trade as a more lucrative business than the drug trade, which was more prevalent decades ago, McDonnell said, adding that sex trafficking is “low risk and high return.” He said pimps can earn up to $3,500 a week off each victim. While the pimps are earning the majority, if not all, the money, in many cases, the child has to ask permission just to eat or use the restroom.
The Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) conducts regular crackdowns on child-sex-trafficking rings, and oftentimes the children are kept in motels and are solicited through the Internet or by cell phone rather than in the manner of the traditional “street walking” prostitute. Local law enforcement also works with the District Attorney’s office, the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security.
Signal Hill Police Chief Michael Langston said he isn’t aware of any specific child-sex trafficking cases in Signal Hill, but he said a recent crackdown on street prostitution on Pacific Coast Highway resulted in a number of arrests. He said prostitution is “evolving” in that many johns are soliciting through Craigslist or social-media sites and meeting up at a specific location rather than picking up a prostitute on the street.
Langston said he fully supports the County supervisor’s motion in addition to legislation that would further penalize pimps as well. Potential victims often come to California in search of fortune and fame but are scooped up by predators who take advantage of them and force them into the sex trade, he said.
“I think more and more we’re finding that a lot of the people engaged in prostitution are certainly not doing it of their own free will,” Langston said. “They’re forced into it by others.”
McDonnell said, since Jan. 1, there have been eight cases of child-sex trafficking in Long Beach, which is already double the amount of cases for the entire year in 2012. Also, there have been 17 women rescued from prostitution this year, and 14 of them were juveniles.
LBPD has also made 10 arrests related to pimping, with one suspect taking a five-year state prison plea and his female partner taking a misdemeanor plea for aiding him and soliciting other girls, McDonnell said. There are also six suspects in custody awaiting trial, all of them facing potential life in prison, he said.
McDonnell added that awareness of child-sex trafficking is key to eradicating it from society.
“I think the piece that is missing with the general public is awareness that this is going on in our back yard,” he said. “Most people, if you ask them about sex trafficking or human trafficking, they would first of all think that it’s happening in a foreign country far away and not think that it’s happening right here in America in their own cities and towns. And it’s not just big cities– it’s potentially anywhere that the pimp can exploit the girls and turn a profit on the activities he’s forced the girls into doing.”
According to a 2009 study titled “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “there is no clear consensus on the number of girls versus boys exploited through prostitution nationwide,” but the study acknowledges that child-sex trafficking victims can be either girls or boys.