Pimps and prostitutes would face tougher penalties while prostitutes under the age of 17 would not face jail time under the Human Trafficking Safe Harbor Act, legislation being considered in Alabama. It would ensure teenage prostitutes are seen as victims, not criminals.
But prostitution is a crime. Why wouldn’t police want to charge the hooker, even if she or he is a teenager?
“No one just decided, ‘I’m 16 and I want to be a prostitute.’ There are circumstances in their life that put them in that situation,” said Barry Matson, the vice chair of the Alabama Task Force on Human Trafficking.
The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams (R) has 61 co-sponsors. It is designed to increase penalties for pimps and johns, while ensuring children under the age of 17 are not penalized for prostitution.
“We have to find ways to help people trapped in this life,” said Williams who is the chairman of the Task Force on Human Trafficking. “If a 17-year-old is out there doing this, there’s something desperately wrong that needs to be addressed.”
Teenagers picked up in prostitution arrests usually don’t go to jail in Alabama. But it can, and does, happen.
The Anniston Star reported nearly three-fourths of Alabama police officers think it is acceptable to arrest a minor on a prostitution charge, according to an informal poll conduced in 2014 by the Alabama Fusion Center, a state and federal criminal intelligence agency.
According to the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force’s website, enditalabama.org, teenage prostitution is a “brutal form” of human trafficking and it has become a tragic fact of life in Alabama, as well as the cities bordering Alabama, including: Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta and Chattanooga.
“Human trafficking continues to escalate and spill over into Alabama communities,” according to the task force’s website. “Human trafficking cases have been reported all across the state.”
Tajuan McCarty, the founder and executive director of The Wellhouse, a Christian-based shelter, told the task force that human trafficking involving teenagers, mostly girls, being forced into prostitution “is (happening) next door to you. It’s in your backyard.”
This is a subject on which McCarty speaks from unimpeachable authority. She was a victim of human trafficking and forced into prostitution when she was 15 years old.
“No woman in her right mind chooses to prostitute herself,” according to The Wellhouse website.
“In many cases, she is lured in by a ‘boyfriend’ who turns out to be a pimp or trafficker. Once she finds out, escaping from the life is difficult and dangerous. Nearly 90% of prostituted women say they want out immediately, but the decision is out of their hands and in the hands of their pimps, their boyfriends or husbands, their addictions, or their children’s financial support.”
Pat McCay, the secretary of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, told WHNT-TV most people believe the majority of teen prostitutes are brought into the state from other countries, but that isn’t true.
McCay said most of the girls forced into prostitution in Alabama are from the Tennessee Valley and many of them are teenagers who have run away from home.
McCay said within the first two days of leaving home, as many as one-third of young runaways wind up on the street as prostitutes.
The Alabama Legislature is not the only venue where this fight is being waged.
Help for teen prostitutes who are victims of human trafficking was made available on a federal level in April. An amendment to provide justice to victims of human trafficking authored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was approved by the Senate as part of S.178, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.
The amendment provides an incentive for states to enact laws that allow human trafficking survivors to clear their criminal records of prostitution and other low-level, non-violent crimes that they can reasonably demonstrate were the result of being trafficked. It was based on the Human Trafficking Survivors Relief and Empowerment Act, S.642, introduced by Shaheen in March.
“Under current laws in many states, the victims of trafficking are trapped not only by their traffickers, but by a criminal justice system that too often fails to acknowledge that they are victims in need of rescue, not criminals deserving incarceration and the stigma of an arrest record,” said Shaheen. “This amendment will provide victims of trafficking the power to reclaim their lives.”
She said many victims of human trafficking are prosecuted for criminal activity they were forced to take part in. These criminal convictions can make it more difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives by limiting opportunities to safe housing, employment, loans, and education.
Shaheen said it was the story of a 24-year-old victim of human trafficking she heard on NPR that convinced her to offer the legislation.
The 24-year-old woman who endured numerous rapes and assaults by pimps for years said she just needed help clearing up her criminal record.
“I’m not ever going to forget what I’ve done or what I’ve gone through. But at the same time, I don’t want it thrown in my face every time I’m trying to seek employment,” she said. “I don’t want to have to explain myself every time.”