A Move To Decriminalize Teen Prostitution

State Sen. Robert Kane initially wanted his proposed legislation to require courts to refer underage prostitutes to social service programs.

Prosecutors, legislator at odds over whether law is needed

Just last week, the feds indicted a Connecticut couple for allegedly forcing two 14-year-old girls to engage in commercial sex acts at a Hartford hotel.

The couple face sex trafficking charges and could go to prison for a long time. The underage girls, meanwhile, will be treated as victims and receive appropriate help, including counseling.

That’s standard operating procedure in juvenile sex trafficking cases handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut. But in the state courts of Connecticut, the outcome for minors involved in prostitution could conceivably be different.

Although state prosecutors say they almost never prosecute underage prostitutes, child advocates say the laws need to be changed to reflect this reality, or else there is always the possibility that a juvenile offender could be prosecuted rather than helped.

So state Sen. Robert Kane, R-Watertown, is pushing a bill that ensures a minor cannot be charged with prostitution. “The bill creates a presumption that any minor child who is engaged in prostitution was either forced to or enticed to do so,” said Kane. “It offers protection to a minor from criminal prosecution for actions that they had no choice but to commit.”

According to the state Judicial Branch, between 2001 and 2008 only two underage girls were charged with prostitution. Both were 15 and ultimately weren’t convicted.

“I don’t ever recall prosecuting a minor for prostitution,” said Francis Carino, the state’s supervisory juvenile prosecutor. “It’s just not something we see in juvenile court.”

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane recently provided testimony to the General Assembly’s Select Committee on Children regarding the proposal. He said the legislation simply isn’t needed. “The Division of Criminal Justice is not in the business of prosecuting the innocent victims of human trafficking or any other crime,” said Kevin Kane. He said if anyone knows of a case where a juvenile was prosecuted for prostitution, officials want to know so they can take “necessary remedial action.”

Cari Carson, a policy fellow for the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, said she supports the legislation, but she also said that “in practice, Connecticut is doing a good job in not prosecuting for prostitution.”

Police Give ‘Break’

So how prevalent is underage prostitution in Connecticut?

Those testifying for and against Robert Kane’s bill seemed to think it’s not a huge problem. But because of the way such cases are handled by local officials, the official numbers might not totally reflect reality.

Nicole von Oy testified that she looked into the issue while working with the Paul & Lisa Program, a Westport-based group that fights child sexual exploitation, and spoke to some girls in group homes who admitted to getting involved in prostitution. She said police often give the young people a “break” and charge them with minor offenses such as loitering or staying out past curfew instead of prostitution, which is a Class A misdemeanor.

None of the testimony has led Sen. Robert Kane to reconsider his bill. “Just because there haven’t been [prosecutions] doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” said Kane. “I don’t buy that argument.”

Robert Kane said the current bill is a streamlined version of his original proposal, which would have required courts to place underage prostitutes in “existing social service programs that could offer assistance in safe and secure housing, crisis intervention, counseling and other community based services.”

“It is not enough to just let the minors go free, to return them to a situation that probably gave rise to their crimes and troubles in the first place,” said Kane. “We need to give them a chance to rebuild their lives.”

Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, legal counsel in the Chief Public Defender’s Office, told lawmakers that regardless of a possible change in the wording of the state’s prostitution law, “this legislation will not change the fact that the juvenile will be arrested and possibly detained.”

Experts testified that underage prostitutes – including those who are victims of sex traffickers — often are trained to lie about their age to authorities. Many have fake identification to back their claims of being 18 or older. That leads to some younger prostitutes being processed in the adult court system until their real age is discovered.

Officials say being arrested is not the worst thing that can happen to an underage prostitute. The social services available to someone forced into prostitution but not arrested “may be somewhat less than to a kid that stands accused in the juvenile court,” said Carino. If the juvenile takes advantage of the help and turns her life around, “the kid could walk away with no record at all.” •

source: http://www.ctlawtribune.com/getarticle.aspx?ID=36513

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