Federal law defines anyone under eighteen engaged in commercial sex activity as a victim of sex trafficking. But in many states these children are treated as criminals. They can be, and often are, arrested, prosecuted and punished.

Upgrading accountability

Many states hold these young victims criminally responsible for violating the penal provisions prohibiting prostitution even when the child has not reached the legal age of consent for sex. This practice should end.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have enacted Safe Harbor Laws, which recognize that children do not voluntarily engage in commercial sex. Such laws promote the criminal prosecution of pimps, traffickers and the buyers of child sex and the protection of vulnerable children.

Commendably, the City of Los Angeles has determined that it will no longer arrest children engaged in commercial sex. But that enlightened approached should not be limited to children found within LA County. It is time for all states to recognize that children sold for sex are victims of serial rape, and that subjecting them to the shame-inducing ordeal of criminal prosecution will only result in further traumatization.

A way forward

An effective Safe Harbor Law should contain provisions that:

  1. Unequivocally remove sex-trafficked children from the criminal justice system.

  2. Place them within the jurisdiction of the department entrusted to aid abused children.

  3. Educate law enforcement and everyone in a position where contact could occur.

  4. Provide funding for services; and many others.

The provisions that Safe Harbor laws should include are described in a new guide recently published by ECPAT-USA. It contains a detailed guide to drafting Safe Harbor legislation to protect and assist sex-trafficked children. The guide, accessible on ECPAT-USA’s web site, includes analysis of the Safe Harbor Laws that have been enacted and the principles that should act as a foundation for such legislation. Los Angeles has taken a step in the right direction. California’s legislature should follow their lead and pass a comprehensive Safe Harbor law.