Friday, October 1, 2010

Underage Prostitution: A Policy Conundrum

Yesterday, our Hastings Criminal Justice Film Club watched the excellent documentary Very Young Girls, examining teenage prostitution in New York City, and especially the vulnerability of the girls and their fragile dependence on their pimps. This morning's Chron highlights a similar phenomenon in California.

Peter Doesburg of Upland in San Bernardino County told The Daily Breeze of Torrance Thursday that he believes his daughter was abducted by Leroy Bragg, 34, while she was in Los Angeles a few months ago.

Vice officers arrested Bragg on Tuesday after a foot chase. He pleaded not guilty Thursday to trafficking of a minor, solicitation and other crimes in the abduction of another 13-year-old girl. He was being held on $1.3 million bail.

Upland police said Thursday they don't have evidence that Bragg kidnapped Doesburg's daughter, but believe she was abducted by people she knew.

"These subjects are believed to be associated with a group of individuals from the Los Angeles area involved in the exploitation and prostitution of young girls," Upland police Sgt. Greg Signorio said in a statement.

Doesburg said she was arrested last week in Los Angeles and returned home, but disappeared again because Bragg allegedly made threats toward her family if she did not return to work for him. He said she might not be aware that Bragg is in jail.

"Come home," Doesburg said. "Everything's OK and we will protect you. You've got nothing to worry about."

She described living in apartments with other girls who have been forced to meet with men for money and were beaten if they could not meet their quotas, he said.

These cases raise a number of questions about criminalization of special populations. As is the case in many US states (though not necessarily so in all countries), prostitution itself, not just pimping, is a crime. Section 647(b) of the CA Penal Code makes it a misdemeanor to--

(b) . . . solicit[s] or . . . agree[s] to engage in or . . . engage[s] in any act of prostitution. A person agrees to engage in an act of prostitution when, with specific intent to so engage, he or she manifests an acceptance of an offer or solicitation to so engage, regardless of whether the offer or solicitation was made by a person who also possessed the specific intent to engage in prostitution. No agreement to engage in an act of prostitution shall constitute a violation of this subdivision unless some act, in addition to the agreement, is done within this state in furtherance of the commission of an act of prostitution by the person agreeing to engage in that act. As used in this subdivision, "prostitution" includes any lewd
act between persons for money or other consideration.

This means that the girls, who incidentally would be legally beneath the age of consent for all other sex, are committing a misdemeanor by engaging in commercial sex. As you can see, the Johns are committing an offense, too. Incidentally, this offense does not carry automatic registration as a sex offender, but in some cases judges might order such registration. Some lawyers offer legal advice for Johns; for the girls, such legal advice is useless because of their young age and dependence upon the pimps for their livelihood. Many of the girls are very deeply attached to the pimps, which doesn't help. That makes them, in effect, more victims than offenders. Combine this with family lives and, frequently, drug problems, and you have a bundle of problems, which are not cured by criminalizing and prosecuting girls for the symptom.

It is a very tricky situation to legislate. In 2008, San Franciscans voted against Prop K, which called for legal prostitution in the city. While some thought it healthy to allow sex workers access to medical services and unionization, this would not solve the problem of underage sex and of exploitation. The other tricky aspect of all of this is prosecuting the pimps, often very difficult without the girls' testimony. The Alameda County DA's office is making efforts to shift their energy away from the girls toward the pimps and johns, including necessary changes in legislation.

Our attention to sex trafficking emerged as we learned of it as an international phenomenon. It appears, however, that it is a problematic and important issue on the domestic arena, as well. One hopes that organizations such as GEMS manage to survive in these difficult times.

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