Report urges new approach to child prostitution

Study calls for less emphasis on arrests, more treatment for juvenile 'victims'

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Police and prosecutors should treat juveniles accused of prostitution as victims of crime and abuse and stop arresting these minors and putting them into the criminal justice system, according to a report released Tuesday by Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The institute and council are under the auspices of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The report, “Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States” was sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Justice officials were particularly interested in learning more about “punitive” responses to the trafficking of youth for prostitution, researchers said. They noted that youths involved in child pornography are not arrested, while minors who engage in prostitution by and large are still arrested.  

A movement is growing in justice circles that opposes arresting juvenile prostitutes, researchers said. Reformers believe arrests may just inflict more damage on youth who are already fragile.  But only nine states as of spring 2012 had enacted versions of “safe harbor” laws ensuring that teens accused of prostitution are treated as victims and exempted from prosecution. The team that produced the report is urging all federal, state and municipal jurisdictions to “redirect”  victims” under the age of 18 away from arrest and prosecution and “toward systems, agencies and services that are equipped to meet their needs.”

“These are children that are prostituted. These are children that are harmed. These are not criminals,” Ellen Wright Clayton, a physician and member of the team, said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

Clayton is a pediatrician, family law professor and expert on child-abuse evaluation at Vanderbilt University. The report emphasizes that organizers of the sex trade often prey on minors who come from broken homes, are neglected and are involved in the foster-care system.

Children and adolescents who are arrested, the authors say, can face commitment to institutions and incarceration and “may have permanent records as offenders,” a harmful burden that jeopardizes their chances of successfully overcoming involvement in sex trafficking.

One of the sites the research team visited was the San Francisco area, where police often refer to the city of Oakland, in Alameda County, as a West Coast “hub” of sex trafficking.

In July, a nationwide FBI sweep of 76 cities to break up child-prostitution rings reportedly ended with more arrests and rescues in the San Francisco Bay Area than any other region: 17 adults were arrested and 12 child prostitutes were discovered.

The Center for Public Integrity recently examined nearly five years’ worth of juvenile arrest data from the Alameda County Probation Department, which showed that prostitution-related allegations were one of the main reasons for female arrests.

Between 2008 and October 2012, police arrested nearly 300 minors on loitering-with-intent-to-commit prostitution charges. Another couple of hundred juvenile arrests were for multiple allegations, including use of fake IDs, combined with various prostitution-related allegations.

Nearly 150 arrests involving prostitution-related charges were “sustained,” with cases referred to probation officials for disposition.   

The data was initially obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, and the Black Organizing Project of Oakland, a community group concerned with high African-American dropout rates.  The groups are arguing for a review of how Oakland police are deployed around schools and their interactions with minors.

The new report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council urges schools, foster-care systems, police and court officials to ensure that staff receive get more training on how to best identify and respond to victims of child prostitution.

Researchers called on the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to help coordinate these efforts. 

Data editor David Donald contributed to this story