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Child Prostitution Law Draws Mixed Reactions

Assemblyman Sandré Swanson
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Assemblyman Sandré Swanson
Critics say bill doesn't deliver on its goal of treating underage sex workers as victims

A new law that increases fines for johns who solicit or engage in sex with minors is getting mixed reactions from child advocates. 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Abolition of Child Commerce, Exploitation, and Sexual Slavery Act Tuesday, upping the penalties for soliciting sex from minors from $5,000 to $25,000. The money will go to programs for sexually exploited children and teens in the counties where the offenses occur.

But the bill contains some mixed messages. One of its stated goals is “to recast the state's laws relating to human trafficking and child sex slavery to treat the trafficked children as victims, rather than prostitutes.” Nowhere, however, does the bill mention diverting underage sex workers to counseling as an alternative to prosecution.

The bill was sponsored by East Bay Assemblyman Sandré Swanson. His spokeswoman, Amy Alley, said the new law “indirectly” supports a move toward treating prostituted minors as victims by routing money to programs for exploited youth.

But others, including Patti Lee, who supervises San Francisco’s juvenile public defenders, said the law falls short of helping young people ensnared in the sex trade.

“It’s an incomplete bill,” Lee said. “The problem I have is that our girls continue to be prosecuted.”

Lee said law enforcement agencies sometimes endanger and further traumatize prostituted girls by pressuring them to testify against their pimps without adequate assurances of safety for themselves or their families.

“It’s very dangerous for them to cooperate with law enforcement,” Lee said.

Vicky Gwiasda, executive director of the Child Abuse Listening, Interviewing and Coordination Center in San Leandro, a nonprofit that facilitates interviews with children suspected of being abused, called Swanson’s bill an “important part” of the effort to fight the exploitation of children. Social service agencies in Alameda County are currently creating a pilot program that would divert some minors arrested for prostitution into treatment programs and other community services, she said.

“We’re in the process of developing the program,” Gwiasda said. “[The new bill] is just one piece of a lot of work. Pieced together, there’s a lot of impressive movement on this issue.”

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