States toughen laws against child sex trafficking

States are cracking down on child sex trafficking in the US, including prostitution, pornography, and sexual performance, by better identifying victims and attaching stiff penalties to new laws.

Shared Hope International/AP
Shared Hope International billboard near Kalispell, Mont. A number of state attorneys general are pressing Congress for more authority to go after websites that host ads for child sex traffickers.

State lawmakers have been making great strides in cracking down on child sex traffickers – and better protecting the victims.

This year, 47 states enacted 186 bills related to domestic sex trafficking of minors – the exploitation of US citizens or lawful permanent residents under 18 for prostitution, pornography, or sexual performance, according to the latest annual report by Shared Hope International, an antitrafficking group based in Vancouver, Wash.

Twenty-nine states improved on last year’s grade, and three – Tennessee, Louisiana, and Washington – scored As in the group’s Protected Innocence Challenge. Since 2011, the challenge has been both to pressure and assist states to close gaps in the plethora of laws that come into play in child-trafficking situations.

Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, if the person exploited is a minor, there is no requirement to prove that force or coercion was used. But about 60 percent of the cases are not prosecuted at the federal level, “so if states don’t have the legal framework to address it, there’s a substantial gap – that’s why we have this challenge to the states,” says Christine Raino, policy counsel in Shared Hope’s Arlington, Va., office. In addition, she says, many provisions for protecting and supporting victims have to come at the state level.

Washington State, for instance, had one of the earliest human trafficking laws, but it had required proof of coercion. It earned an A this year in part because it removed that requirement in cases involving minors. As in statutory rape, minors shouldn’t be considered able to consent to being sold for sex, advocates say.

The number of US children who are trafficked for sex is difficult to track. Shared Hope International estimates that at least 100,000 juveniles are victimized through prostitution in the US each year.

Law enforcement agencies involved in a national network known as the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces reported a 230 percent increase in the number of documented complaints of online enticement of children from 2004 to 2008, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Those task forces also noted a more than 1,000 percent increase in complaints of child prostitution from 2004 to 2008.

The Protected Innocent report notes particular progress this year in states better identifying minors arrested for prostitution as victims – and instead of sending them through the criminal system, giving them immunity and providing more support and specialized services. Still, the report estimates that fewer than 250 beds are available across the country in safe places that specialize in helping domestically trafficked children.

Another area in which several states improved: reducing demand.

One way states can do this is by attaching stiff penalties to the laws. Montana, for instance, raised its score from 14.5 to 22 out of a possible 25 points in this category. Its penalty for commercial sexual exploitation of a child ranges from 25 to 100 years, and that’s a stronger minimum penalty than the federal minimum (10 to 15 years depending on the age of the child).

Offenders also face up to $50,000 in fines in Montana. Increasing fines is important, Ms. Raino says, because there’s often a profit motive to these crimes.

California, by contrast, has weaknesses in laws that address demand, and it received an overall grade of F. People who benefit financially from assisting sex trafficking can’t be punished under the trafficking law in California, the report notes, and minimal penalties apply to child pornography offenses.

The other states that earned Fs are Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Hawaii, Maine, and Michigan.

Three states raised their grade from F to C: Arkansas, Kansas and Wyoming – and Wyoming was the most improved of all the states, gaining 38 points out of a total of 102.

More states are offering or mandating training for law enforcement officers addressing child sex trafficking. And a number of states have made wiretapping available as a tool for investigators.

“The level of change is exciting,” Raino says. Both lawmakers and grass-roots advocates have been critical, she says, in identifying and fixing weaknesses in their states.

To see how your state stacks up, check out the map and detailed state-by-state report cards here.

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