By: Megan Cassidy, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX — The crime of soliciting sex from a minor in Arizona carries a sentence of up to 24 years behind bars, but a Phoenix suspect convicted of the crime should more realistically expect a term of three months, according to a new study released by anti-sex-trafficking group Shared Hope International and Arizona State University.
The outcome for a Phoenix convict hovers around the average when compared with the sentences of counterparts nationwide. The median actual time served in D.C.-Baltimore for soliciting sex from a minor was 180 days, 14 days in Portland and 88.5 days in Seattle.
None of those studied was charged with a sex-trafficking crime.
The study’s results indicate judicial leniency for a crime that is responsible for fueling the sex-trafficking market, said Linda Smith, president and founder of Shared Hope International.
“The research shows that when they’re arrested … at state level, that they’re not facing the full force of the law,” Smith said.
The study’s results were presented Monday in Phoenix.
The study was the first of its kind to focus on the criminal outcomes of the demand side of sex trafficking, the “johns” who are arrested for soliciting sex from a minor or an undercover decoy claiming to be one.
It has only been in the past three to four years that most states have enacted severe penalties for the buyers of minors, Smith said, and the study had limited subjects with which to work. So researchers tapped into 134 cases from four sites whose agencies have devoted extensive resources to anti-demand law enforcement: those in the D.C.-Baltimore corridor, Phoenix metro area, Portland metro area and Seattle metro area.
The Phoenix-area results align with those of the more highly publicized cases, many of which were pleaded down to lesser offenses.
Michael Gilliland, former Sunflower Farmers Market CEO, was sentenced to two 15-day terms after pleading guilty to misdemeanor pandering.
Jerry Marfe, a former high-school chemistry teacher who was caught in a December teen prostitution sting was sentenced to 15 days in jail followed by 10 years of probation.
Marfe was one of 30 who were netted in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office operation. All were initially charged with one or two counts of class-2 felony child prostitution, but of those sentenced to date, 18 ended up pleading to lesser counts of pandering, class-6 child prostitution or child/vulnerable adult abuse. Three others pleaded to charges of class 2 or class three felony child prostitution.
Researchers focused on the criminal justice outcome of each of the 134 cases and found that they resulted in 119 arrests, 118 of those arrested prosecuted and 113 of those prosecuted eventually found guilty.
Of those found guilty, 26 percent served no time and 69 percent of the sentences were suspended by an average of 85 percent.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University, said she was particularly troubled that only 66 of the 113 cases were registered as sex offenders. The outcome, she said, would have been different if there wasn’t a dollar amount involved.
“How we categorize them is going to be very important for our culture moving forward,” she said.
Former sex-trafficking victim and survivor advocate Rebecca Bender encouraged law enforcement to focus on the buyers rather than the traffickers, as it is extremely difficult to break a victim’s bond with her trafficker.
“One thing that’s not difficult is to get the victim to to turn on her buyer,” she said. “They are less than scum to us.”
In a separate portion of the study, researchers found 99 percent of 407 buyers studied across the country were male, the median age was 42.5 years, and 21.6 percent of the total buyer cases where a profession was identified involved someone in a position of authority or trust, including law enforcement, attorney or military personnel.
Smith said it is up to police, prosecutors and judges to enforce the laws to their fullest extent, but said a culture of tolerance for buyers is pervasive.
The study operates on the notion that tougher, enforced penalties will act as a deterrent for buyers. So researchers view the issue in terms of economics: Shrink the demand, reduce supply.
“If there’s no market because the buyer stayed home with his own family, then the traffickers would not be out there preying on the children in our neighborhood,” Smith said.
Researchers point out that the buyers are often overlooked by police in favor of extracting minor victims from a dangerous situation or arresting traffickers. The amount of time and resources it takes to investigate buyers is often disproportionate to the penalties, which are substantially higher for traffickers.
“The problem on the law-enforcement end is making it a priority to go back and do the buyer end of it,” Sgt. Clay Sutherland of the Phoenix Police Department’s vice unit says in the report. “Our emphasis on going back after the buyers is limited. We have our hands full.”
Defense attorneys and several suspected buyers involved in these cases have rebuked the “predator” designation due to the method police use for arrests.
Law enforcement agencies often rely on decoys to sweep the streets of would-be buyers. Undercover officers post ads on 18 and over websites but later make it known that the “girl” is underage. Many defendants say they were seeking an of-age prostitute—a misdemeanor offense that turns into a serious felony when the girl is underage.
“Ninety-nine percent (of johns) — they’re looking for an adult,” said defense attorney Mark Nermyr in an earlier interview with the Arizona Republic. “At some point, the officer sneaks age in the conversation, and that changes it from a misdemeanor — 10 days in jail — to a felony. It’s not doing anything to combat child prostitution.”
Smith argued that there are signs of intent from many of the defendants, but said intent should be irrelevant.
“You’re not allowed to run over somebody while under the influence of alcohol and say, ‘Oops, I didn’t know I drank too much,'” she said. “You should stand and take the punishment for hurting the child.”
Researchers say while state laws are catching up to the reality of the business, work needs to be done as a culture. The study says anti-trafficking push could benefit from a public-awareness campaign like those of MADD and texting-and-driving, to make the practice more shameful in the public eye.
“When people start seeing that this is the crime of a man or a person who is buying an innocent child, it will change,” she said.
FULL STORY – USA TODAY – Study: Soliciting Sex from Minor Nets Little Prison Time
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