The Senate Judiciary Committee took one step yesterday toward ending sex trafficking in Colorado, a crime that many do not know exists but which traps girls, many of them born and raised in Colorado, at an average starting age of 12 to 14 years old.
The committee held a hearing for Senate Bill 85 (pdf), a bill that would establish a hefty fine for soliciting, pandering, or patronizing a prostitute and would create “john schools” for first-time offenders. After some debate about the amount of the fine, the committee voted 9-0 in favor of the bill.
“I’m happy that it has bipartisan support,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, sponsor of the bill.
Powerful testimony about human trafficking and prostitution gripped the room for nearly two hours. Beth Klein, a Boulder attorney who helped write the bill and has been asked to work on similar legislation in other states as well as several other countries, gave the first testimony in support of the bill.
“Everybody here will benefit, so we don’t have our middle school girls–our 14-year-old girls in north Denver and Aurora, who comprise the supply–we won’t have to see their lives being trashed,” she said, adding that if the effort is successful, it can be expected to yield a 40-percent reduction in prostitution.
SB-85 would give first-time offenders the option to attend a “john school” and pay a fine, which would then be a source of funding for training programs to help victims recover and move on with their lives. Marian Hatcher, a former trafficking victim who helped start a similar program in Chicago and came to Denver to speak at the hearing, said prostitution is not a victimless crime, as many believe.
“You can ask my five children, who were wondering where their mother was while I was being trafficked,” she said. She told the committee that she became a victim herself at the age of 38. She faced seven years in prison, but she was given an opportunity to participate in a diversion program. “That was tough,” she said, but it was worthwhile, and she’s now working to combat the problem in Cook County, Illinois.
The Colorado bill seeks to create a similar system: to provide opportunity for the victims while punishing the individuals who are creating the demand.
“This year we’re focusing on demand because unless we look at the demand side and have people really think about having serious consequences for contributing to this problem, then we’ll never solve it,” Klein said. “This is now going to be the cutting edge of the demand-side piece.”
The fine was originally proposed, in an amendment to the bill, to be set at $10,000 but there was concern, primarily from Republican Senators Kevin Lundberg, Berthoud, and Steve King, Grand Junction, that such a high fee would ultimately run contrary to the intended effect and instead drive johns into the court system, rather than see them paying the fine.
But Hatcher said in her opinion, the amount of the fine is appropriate.
“Men are willing to pay,” Hatcher said. “Since we began this, we have had one out of the 101 [johns] go to the administrative hearing process. The rest of them are pulling out their credit cards and their checkbooks, and want to go home.”
Recidivism rates tend to be high when the consequences are minimal, but have dropped in places around the country that, like Cook County, have a “john school” program similar to what SB-85 would set up.
The committee focused some questioning on the amount of the fine, and ultimately settled on allowing judges to set fines between $5,000 and $10,000. Shaffer was reluctant to go lower than that.
“I don’t want to give courts so much latitude that they don’t hammer these guys,” he said.
The amount of the fine is already a topic being discussed online, lending support to the idea that it is an effective deterrent. Klein wrote in an email after the hearing, “It’s clear the proposed fine is already having an impact based upon the chatter in the pimp chat rooms and the feedback that Johns will not offend with this type of a consequence.”
There was one testimony in opposition to SB-85 from Billie Jackson, who spoke on behalf of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
The rest of the testimonies were in support of the bill. Detective Brent Struck from the Lakewood Police Department spoke about the magnitude of the problem. Between 2007 and 2011, he said 36 child prostitution victims have been identified in Lakewood, most of them born in Colorado and most of them quite young. He said he interviews every victim and almost every girl tells him that she engaged in her first act of prostitution between the age of 12 and 14.
Sergeant Daniel Steele, supervisor of the vice team at the Denver Police Department, said that about $60 million is spent on prostitution in the Denver metro area alone, and that his department averages 375 prostitution arrests a year, but only about 150 john arrests–and that in those cases, they typically spend one night in jail and pay a $200 fine. The consequences are minimal, too many are avoiding punishment at all, he said, and the tools available to fight the crime are clearly insufficient.
“The Denver Police Department right now is looking for innovative ideas to curb prostitution,” he said. Every year, “our average is going to be 375 prostitution arrests. Does that mean that we’re making a difference? It doesn’t. Pretty much what we do all year long, we’re going to come up with about the same numbers, so we need to do different things.”
The next step for the bill is to go to the full Senate for debate and discussion, which could happen as early as Friday.