Drive slowly down Colfax some evening and look closely at the action on the corners. If any of the prostitutes look a bit young, like they should be home doing homework–middle school homework–instead of out on the street, you’re right. Senate President Brandon Shaffer is aware of the fact that young children are forced into prostitution even in Colorado, and he’s introduced a bill to do something about it.
If passed, Senate Bill 85 (pdf) will establish “john schools” for individuals with first-time prostitution-related offenses. Proponents of the program say this approach, already adopted in many major U.S. cities, is effective for fighting prostitution because it reduces recidivism rates. But it will also help address a problem even more hidden than prostitution itself: human trafficking.
Girls–and boys, too–are forced or tricked into the sex trade and once they’re in, it’s virtually impossible for them to get out. As one indicator that it’s not a chosen line of work, experts point to the average age at which individuals enter prostitution in Colorado: 13 years old. “Eighth-grade girls who’ve had normal upbringings do not become prostitutes,” said Beth Klein, a Boulder attorney and anti-trafficking advocate who worked on the bill with state Senate President Brandon Shaffer, who introduced SB-85 late last month.
Klein added that she’s spoken with schools across Colorado. “Every single principal I’ve talked to can name the girls who’ve been trafficked by name,” she said. “Thirteen is the average, but it goes a lot lower than 13.”
Trafficking does not necessarily mean movement across borders. As defined by the State Department, which has an office dedicated to the issue, human trafficking is the act of holding someone for labor or sex through force, fraud or coercion. Luis C. deBaca, the State Department’s director charged with combating trafficking, said in congressional testimony in 2010, “In the case of minors in sex trafficking, there is no requirement to show force, fraud, or coercion. No child can consent to being sold into commercial sex. If a pimp used a child for commercial sex that child should be treated as a victim, not a criminal.”
Exactly how many girls are trafficked in Colorado or the country is a looming question. Because of the hidden nature of the crime and the lack of resources to tackle it, numbers are impossible to pin down and the statistics that do exist are widely disputed. An FBI nationwide crackdown on child prostitution in 2009 uncovered three girls in Denver, and 45 girls in other cities–but the uncovered cases represent a small minority of the total.
The Department of Justice estimates that 200,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked into the sex industry nationwide. According to the Congressional Research Service, some estimate that 100,000 American children are victims of trafficking (of all forms, not just sex trafficking) within the U.S. Trafficking experts question government statistics and almost never give estimates because the numbers are so unreliable, but as an example, an estimated 200 to 300 children are exploited every month in Atlanta, which has one of the country’s highest child sex trafficking rates.
In order to control their victims, traffickers often drug them, which leads to addiction and as a result, long-term dependency on both the drugs and the trafficker.
Compounding the problem is that there are virtually no services available to address the problem head-on. Klein emphasized the need for a task force designed “to catch the people who are trafficking people. We have that for drugs, but not for people.”
Under SB-85, first-time offenders of prostitution-related crimes would be offered the option to enroll in an educational program instead of facing a prison sentence. “This bill creates an opportunity for judges and district attorneys to use retraining as a sentencing tool rather than having johns just show up and pay a fine like a traffic ticket and have it go away,” Klein said.
Education is thought to be more effective than imprisonment, which turns into a cyclical event for many who are released only to repeat the same actions. The “john school,” or “solicitation diversion program,” as Klein prefers to call it, is in part run by victims, an intentional feature to help the johns understand what they have been contributing to so they don’t continue to commit the same offenses.
The program is also a money-saver: offenders would have to pay for the class themselves. “Not one penny of taxpayer money would be used to do these retrainings — they pay for it themselves,” said Klein.
In the repeat offender cases that do arise, Shaffer pointed to 2005 legislation that doubled the penalty against repeat offenders (pdf) as a key tool. “I think we have a pretty good one-two punch,” he said. “In the first place trying to educate and remediate, and in the second case, to punish as severely as we can.”
The program created under SB-85 is modeled after similar programs around the country–although this would be the first statewide program, most are instituted by individual cities–that have successfully reduced recidivism rates while saving significant sums of money. Shaffer cited the program in San Francisco, one of the country’s first: “they’ve been able to reduce the harm [johns] inflict on society through human trafficking, and we’re trying to duplicate that here.”
Many cities have reported more than $100,000 in annual surplus as a result of the training program. That money can be used to improve police enforcement or victim services, which are currently insufficient or nonexistent in many cases.
The way the system works now, girls are usually treated as criminals rather than victims. “We have no place to keep them other than in jail in Colorado,” she said, speaking about the period between when a trafficker is caught and when the case is settled. Victims can’t be simply dismissed, sometimes because they have nowhere to go but perhaps more importantly to the legal system, because their testimony is critical to putting traffickers away.
“The police have to spend resources to arrest them, the women are fined, which means they have to be back on the streets to make money/pay their pimps, and then those same women are arrested again,” she wrote in an email. “It’s a revolving door.”
Some wonder why public shaming is not used, in addition to or instead of the john schools, as a tactic for dealing with prostitution offenders. However, that approach often backfires, particularly in trafficking cases. Based on data collected from criminology and justice departments, Klein said, when johns are shamed publicly, they tend to in turn beat their victims. “There’s so much collateral damage that shaming is not worthwhile,” she said. “The john doesn’t get punished himself–everybody else gets punished around him.”
Along with a number of anti-trafficking advocates across the country, Klein believes that efforts to prosecute traffickers that do not simultaneously work to reduce demand can never address the real problem. As long as there’s demand, prices may go up, but traffickers will find a way. “We have to retrain people in buying, and we know we can do that based on ten years’ worth of data,” said Klein. “It’s just a shame that Colorado is now one of the last states in the United States to adopt this kind of an effective program.”
Shaffer said the next step is to hold a hearing that will feature testimony from out-of-state experts. That hearing has not yet been scheduled.