Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced this week that his office would no longer arrest minors who have been trafficked for sex or sexual exploitation, joining a growing list of cities and states that have moved to decriminalize children forced into the sex trade.
The announcement was applauded by several advocacy groups, which argue that arresting trafficked minors puts blame on the victim and makes it difficult for them to get access to school and work opportunities.
Yasmin Vafa is the co-founder and director of law and policy at Rights4Girls, a group that has been working with the LA County Sheriff’s office and other government officials in Los Angeles to change the way victims of sex trafficking are treated.
“We have both local and state laws that ban prostitution,” Vafa said. “The problem is, we’re having these laws applied to children who in many cases aren’t even old enough to consent to sex in the first place. So we have this contradiction.”
That contradiction is at the heart of a series of new laws over the past few years that have attempted to protect trafficked minors.
“Most cities in the United States either have or are moving in the direction of [policies of] not arresting children,” said Melissa Farley, Executive Director of Prostitution Research and Education, based in California. “It’s a matter of the law catching up to social practices.”
New York passed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act in 2008, a state law that defines sexually exploited children as victims instead of perpetrators. Minnesota passed its own Safe Harbor Law in 2011. And in 2010, the Texas supreme court ruled that children under the age of consent couldn’t be charged with selling sex, the Texas Tribune reported.
“It’s absolutely a major milestone to see a major metropolitan area committing to this new paradigm,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a group that works to combat human trafficking. “I think that it’s definitely representative of a national trend.”
Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization aimed at preventing sex trafficking, found that 933 bills related to domestic minor sex trafficking have been introduced in 50 states since August 2014, according to a report released in September of this year.
There has also been legislation at the federal level. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 requires each state to identify and determine appropriate services for children in its care who have been trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked.