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L.A. County seeks tougher penalties for men who pay for sex with girls

The county Board of Supervisors calls for laws making it a felony instead of a misdemeanor and requiring 'johns' to register as sex offenders and pay higher fines.

September 03, 2013|By Seema Mehta
  • Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says it's "just ridiculous" that men who pay for sex with minors are given a slap on the wrist. "It's high time we treat the adults as what they are: predators engaging in behavior that is morally repugnant."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says it's "just… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County officials Tuesday unanimously called for stricter penalties for men who seek out underage prostitutes, urging state lawmakers to require that "johns" who pay to have sex with children face felony rather than misdemeanor charges, be required to register as sex offenders and pay higher fines.

Currently, "the adults are essentially given a slap on the wrist by sending them to something called 'john school,' " Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said after he proposed the resolution. "That's just ridiculous, and it's high time we treat the adults as what they are: predators engaging in behavior that is morally repugnant."

Ridley-Thomas, who sponsored the resolution along with Supervisor Don Knabe, said three state lawmakers have offered to be co-authors.

The effort comes as county officials are increasingly focused on child-sex trafficking. Pimps prey on young girls, often with ties to the foster-care system, and can make six figures in a year from a small stable of girls, who are sold on the streets or over the Internet. In parts of Los Angeles County, gangs have turned to child prostitution instead of drugs because they face less scrutiny from law enforcement and can repeatedly make money off the girls, as young as 10, compared with drugs, which they can only sell once, according to officials.

"What we're seeing, much like narcotics back in the late '70s, early '80s, we're seeing the proliferation of sex trafficking being put forth by the gangs," said Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.

Previous attempts to fight child-sex trafficking have focused on the girls — treating them as victims rather than criminals — and their pimps. Going after the customers is an attempt to reduce demand.

"If we don't stop demand, nothing changes," said Michelle Guymon, who runs a sex trafficking unit for the county Probation Department.

Jessica Midkiff, 28, is a survivor of child-sex trafficking and said that it was crucial for the public to realize that it is not a victimless crime, and that there needed to be greater consequences for the men who look for underage prostitutes.

"When I was being victimized by traffickers, there was never a shortage of sex buyers ready to purchase me," she testified at the hearing. "The sex buyers appeared very unconcerned with being caught or any consequences whatsoever. The individuals I saw getting arrested most often were other victims like me."

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey successfully urged the board to adopt an amendment that the legislation not allow men to claim they did not know a prostitute's age as a defense. She said the proposal represents the current shift in how law enforcement treats underage prostitutes.

"This motion represents a change in our view of who is the true victim of this crime and who are the true criminals," she said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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