Child prostitution may not be obvious to the untrained eye.
In 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) rolled out its Innocence Lost National Initiative with the goal of combating child prostitution. Innocence Lost brings together the FBI, the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Criminal Division, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
The agencies work together to investigate criminal enterprises that prostitute and exploit children, with the help of local law enforcement officers. Innocence Lost trains local officers to recognize the signs of a child prostitute without having to be an expert.
A Sacramento patrol officer was able to spot a child prostitute in a fast food restaurant after having recently attended a training conducted by the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force, according to a 2013 article in the Police Chief, written by an FBI special agent. The officer later testified his role in the case in federal court, leading to a 31-year prison sentence for the offender.
Since the initiative was implemented, 73 Innocence Lost Child Exploitation task forces and working groups have developed- including one in Sacramento, according to the FBI.
As of October 2015, Innocence Lost has recovered more than 4,800 children and has succeeded in more than 2,000 convictions of pimps, madams and their associates.
Although there are task forces working to save children, since prostitution is illegal in many states, underage prostitutes are still getting arrested and charged – but that will soon change in California.
Today, California Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation that decriminalizes prostitution for minors, meaning that beginning January 2017, police can no longer charge those under the age of 18 with prostitution. Gov. Brown also signed other bills such as one that allows people to defend themselves, if forced to commit an illegal offense as a human trafficking victim and another which will allow underage trafficking victims to testify remotely.
The law serves to change the way sex crimes are treated in California and aims to treat underage prostitutes as victims.
However, some law enforcement groups argue that removing penalties from minors could mean not having a safe place to detain victims and keep them away from abusers.
The new law will allow for minors to be taken into temporary custody under limited circumstances.
What does this mean for 'Johns'- the people who solicit sex from minors- and sex traffickers?
Soliciting for sex is still illegal. 'Johns' will still face the same legal consequences for illegal prostitution. Sex traffickers and pimps will also be held accountable for their crimes, as the laws have only changed for those who are underage prostitutes.
According to an FBI report, the average age of a child prostitute is 13. Many are runaways and are found by pimps in places like bus stops, shelters or even in foster homes. A high percentage of prostitutes are recruited as juveniles. The report states, the life expectancy after becoming a prostitute is 7 years.
Three of the 13 locations of High Intensity Child Prostitution Areas (HICPA) are in California cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
The FBI has been leading a periodical sting called Operation Cross Country since 2008. The national sweep aims to find underage prostitutes and arrest sex traffickers and pimps. In 2015, law enforcement recovered 149 sexually exploited children and arrested 150 pimps and other individuals. In 2014, the operation encountered their biggest numbers to date: 168 sex trafficking victims and 281 pimps.
Decriminalizing underage prostitution is just a further step to protect minors from life on the streets.