Prosecutors and Police Still Treating Juvenile Prostitutes As Criminals, Not Victims

Three years ago, Washington legislators rewrote the books on how the state deals with juvenile prostitutes. For years, young men and women caught up in the world of prostitution have been treated as criminals and subjected to harsh sentences in juvenile facilities. Senate Bill 5718 was designed to change that.

The bill imposed tougher penalties for the pimps and johns who prey upon juvenile prostitutes—mostly teenage girls—and acknowledged that juvenile prostitutes are in fact victims of crime.

However, in spite of the bill, documents obtained from the King County Prosecutor’s office show prosecutors and police continue to attack the problem of juvenile prostitution by going after these victims, rather than their pimps or johns.

Since SB 5718 took effect in 2007, King County prosecutors—who handle the majority of juvenile cases—have filed nearly three times as many charges against juvenile prostitutes as they have against the men who exploit them.

In 2007, King County filed charges against juvenile prostitutes 38 times.  The next year, perhaps due to SB 5718, that number plummeted to 18. But in 2009, prosecutors again began aggressively pursuing charges, filing a total of 39 counts of prostitution against juveniles. Total count: 95 charges filed.

In that same period of time, prosecutors filed only 37 cases against the men who exploit these young women: 4 in 2007, 18 in 2008, and 15 in 2009.

Of those cases, 11 were filed against johns for “commercial sexual abuse of a minor,” and 26 were against pimps for “promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor.”

Looking at those numbers, it seems that SB 5718 didn’t quite have the impact it was intended to. This, of course, isn’t sitting well with one key person behind the bill.

When I showed these numbers to City Councilmember Nick Licata—who helped draft SB 5718 with its sponsor, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles—he told me he believes “these arrest rates do violate the spirit of the legislation we wrote” and intends to ask SPD “how this squares with the intent I thought we all had agreed to.”

According to Licata, officers have told him they “feel like they’re doing more good than harm in getting these girls off the streets.” However, Licata counters, “the statistics show these girls are just being recycled [through the criminal justice system]. Just putting them in jail doesn’t get them off the streets.”

Surprisingly, prosecutors seem to agree.

“We all know they are victims before they’re out on the streets and they continue to be victims out on the street. We all get that,” says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “I’m not saying [jail] is the most effective tool, but it’s the only tool we’ve got right now.”

Satterberg certainly raises an interesting point. I’ve written about this issue several times in the last few years and have seen numerous cases of girls who are effectively brainwashed by their pimps, and can’t stay away from them. But locking them up doesn’t seem to do much good either as, Satterberg notes: “Often there’s a pimp waiting for them to get back out on the streets…to continue making money for them.”

Everyone seems to agree that jail isn’t the best answer for these exploited teens, so why not put more energy into pursuing their pimps and johns?

“I would love to be able to prosecute more adult men who are exploiting [juveniles],” Satterberg says. “We have lots of extra space in the jails for people like that. We’re just not getting that many [cases] referred.”

According to Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb, “nothing would please us more than to lock up someone that’s patronizing a child,” but police are also at a bit of a loss when it comes to dealing with juvenile prostitution.

SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says that generally, prostitutes—rather than johns—are “the easier target” for police. Officers can spot teenage girls on the street and take them in for prostitution-related loitering, but catching a john in the act is tougher. Without employing underage officers—which isn’t an option—police can’t conduct stings to catch johns pursuing underage girls.

And herein lies another big piece of the problem: Prosecutors say they’re just filing the cases they receive, and police say they’re just making the busts they can make stick.

Nothing changes.

So what’s the solution?

Last week, a group of Dallas police officers came to Seattle to train SPD officers on new tactics for getting juvenile prostitutes off the streets, instead of putting them through the revolving doors of the criminal justice system. In April, Seattle will also become the fourth city in the country to have in intensive in-patient rehabilitation program for juvenile prostitutes.

Does this mean law enforcement will finally put more energy into arresting and prosecuting the pimps and johns who exploit these young women? Does this mean they’ll begin following the spirit of the bill designed to protect crime victims, rather than punish them?

I guess we’re just going to have to wait and find out.