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Getting tough on underage prostitution

L.A. County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets.

September 03, 2013|Steve Lopez

On a typical Friday or Saturday night on Long Beach Boulevard in Compton and nearby communities, men by the hundreds go cruising for prostitutes, and they have no trouble finding them.

It used to be that a "john" had to take care not to get caught soliciting action. About 100 officers worked vice in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. But priorities have shifted dramatically in recent years as prostitution became thought of by many as a victimless crime.

How many officers work vice today?

"Officially, there are five on that detail," said Chief of Detectives Bill McSweeney, although additional officers are called in at times.

It may be time for another shift in resources, because members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have suddenly seemed to notice that a lot of women working the street are actually underage girls as young as 10 or 12, often being exploited by gangs that essentially enslave them in the sex trade.

At Tuesday's meeting, the supes called on Sacramento to attack the demand, making it a felony rather than a misdemeanor to solicit an underage girl.

"Children cannot give consent by definition," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who added that "by most standards," sex with a minor is statutory rape. And yet the perpetrators often get little more than a ticket to "john school," where they are warned about the evils of prostitution.

There's really nothing new about underage prostitution. What's different, though, is what Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Don Knabe have referred to as "a paradigm shift," in which juveniles in the sex trade are more commonly viewed as victims in need of being rescued rather than punished.

It's not clear how many underage girls are at issue here, but it's clearly in the hundreds if not the thousands, based on the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution-related offenses. And my Sunday column on Jessica Midkiff, who also testified at Tuesday's meeting, explained how the business works.

Midkiff, 28, came under the command of several pimps beginning at the age of 14, and they made the ground rules crystal clear.

Run, and we'll track you down and beat you.

Call the police and rat out your pimp, and we'll torture you or your family.

At the meeting Tuesday, support for tougher legislation came from Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, Compton Mayor Aja Brown and the Sheriff Department's McSweeney.

No surprise, because who could possibly be opposed to rougher sanctions for anyone who pays for sex with a minor? Not many cops, said McSweeney, but he did point out a few complications.

One reason johns don't get charged with statutory rape, he explained, is that it's not easy to catch them in the act of sex. It's a little easier to catch them soliciting, but even that can be tricky. Johns tend to get arrested in sting operations after they solicit an undercover cop, and the cops who pose aren't underage.

McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It's a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

At Tuesday's meeting, the only hint of hesitation about the proposal by Ridley-Thomas and Knabe came from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who supported it, but worried that penalties against johns would become greater than penalties against the pimps.

But before the meeting, I found someone who was far more critical of the proposal.

"I think they're just grandstanding, and I think they're doing it to make themselves look good and they have no idea what the impact will be on the streets," said Lois Lee, who runs Children of the Night, a local nonprofit group dedicated to "rescuing America's children from prostitution." Since 1979, the agency has offered refuge, housing, education and job services for girls from all over the country.

Lee said she thinks existing laws against solicitation are adequate and simply need to be more strictly enforced. Going to "john school" shouldn't expunge your first offense, she said, and a second conviction should result in a mandatory jail sentence.

She said she feared that making solicitation of a minor a felony would drive the trade further underground, creating greater risk for the girls. A more creative and constructive way to help underage prostitutes, in Lee's mind, would be to remove them from the streets for their own safety.

"A child involved in prostitution is a danger to herself, so you would hold her in a hospital setting for a 72-hour assessment," Lee said.

An interesting approach, but it didn't fly with Lacey, who predicted a number of legal hurdles.

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