Shared Hope has been a leader on policy research in the field of child and youth sex trafficking for over 20 years, working to ensure federal, state, and local policies are rooted in and supported by research and promising practices. Shared Hope’s Policy Team provides technical assistance and advocacy support to Congressional and state legislators seeking research-based, survivor-centered, and field-informed policy solutions to address child and youth sex trafficking. As Congress heads into Summer Recess and 27 of the 46 states in session in 2022 have adjourned for the calendar year, Shared Hope is doing a legislative update blog series on state and federal laws that have been introduced and enacted with the potential to impact survivors of child and youth sex trafficking.
Shared Hope International is tracking more than 186 state bills across the country that impact child and youth sex trafficking survivors. We identified trends that became priority issues. We broke these priorities into three categories: non-criminalization, juvenile justice, and access to services. The first blog in the series takes a look at state non-criminalization legislation.
During the 2022 legislative sessions this year, at least 10 states have introduced legislation that would protect a child from being blamed for their own commercial sexual exploitation. Laws that protect all minors from prostitution charges are necessary to justly respond to juvenile sex trafficking victims and safeguard child victims from being treated as criminals. Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin introduced legislation that would enact Safe Harbor, or would prohibit juveniles being criminalized for prostitution-related offenses. Unfortunately, the legislation failed in all states but Missouri. The Missouri General Assembly passed SB 775, which directs law enforcement to deliver any known or reasonably suspected victim of child sex trafficking to child welfare for an investigation and services. The bill is awaiting Governor Parson’s signature with an action deadline of July 2, 2022.
The non-criminalization bills introduced in the other 9 states faced opposition from lawmakers for various reasons, including concerns that arrest was the only way to keep child victims safe, or that threats of prosecution were the only way to get child victims to comply with services and/or the investigation and prosecution of their trafficker. Punishing commercially exploited minors harms victims and undermines survivor-centered efforts to address child and youth sex trafficking. First, it is irreconcilable with Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (“JVTA”), which defines victims of child sex trafficking as victims of child abuse, to criminalize commercially exploited children. Thus, victims of child sex trafficking remain the only child abuse victims who can be arrested and prosecuted for their own victimization.
Additionally, arrests and threats of prosecution have a harmful impact on juveniles. Not only does this have a potential impact to create an arrest or delinquency record, but it also has a harmful impact on their mental health and reinforces what traffickers have warned victims about seeking help from law enforcement. This creates distrust between child and the system that is supposed to be helping them and results in more children and youth refusing to cooperate with law enforcement and/or receive services. During Shared Hope’s testimony in support of Virginia’s Safe Harbor bill, SB664, Sen. Ryan McDougle asked a prosecutor at the hearing whether passing non-criminalization legislation would prevent the prosecution of traffickers. An Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney from Prince William County answered “. . . the difficulty we see is overcoming that relationship where the individuals are groomed to accept their abuser, their handler, their pimp for lack of a better word, the individual who is pushing them out there saying this is a good life, this is your only life. The difficulty is overcoming that bond that they reach and getting them to be willing to testify . . . I would submit, it doesn’t greatly impact our ability to go after the [trafficker] because we have to break the bond and not threaten them with a charge to get them to testify.” This demonstrates that a survivor-centered approach through protection and access to services is the key to breaking the bond between the survivor and the trafficker, and that punitive responses are largely unsuccessful. While the Senate went on to pass SB664, the House Judiciary Committee killed the bill without a hearing.
Recognizing that many child sex trafficking victims are forced or compelled to engage in other criminal conduct as a result of their criminalization, Shared Hope supports legislation that goes beyond prostitution-related offenses and prohibits criminalization of status offenses, misdemeanors, and non-violent felonies. New Hampshire enacted legislation to expand their non-criminalization of trafficking victims in their 2022 legislative session. New Hampshire previously enacted Safe Harbor for non-violent misdemeanors and non-violent felonies but allowed juveniles to be proceeded upon on status offenses. This legislation, HB1557, amends the Code to prohibit a victim of human trafficking from being prosecuted for any offense committed as a direct result of being trafficking that did not involve an act of violence or threat of violence for both adults and juveniles. Additionally, HB1577 expands a survivors ability to vacate convictions or adjudication of delinquency related to their trafficking. HB1577 was signed by Governor and becomes effective on January 1, 2023.
Criminalization of juvenile sex trafficking victims is fundamentally unfair and implies that victims of sex trafficking are responsible for the severe crime committed against them. No other child sexual abuse victim faces criminalization for their own sexual abuse, yet one third of states still allow minors to be charged with prostitution simply because the abusive conduct suffered is commercialized. As long as juvenile victims under sex trafficking laws continue to be treated as perpetrators under prostitution laws, there cannot be a true shift in cultural attitudes to stop stigmatizing juvenile victims as “child prostitutes” and start acknowledging child sex trafficking—the buying and selling of children for sex—as a serious crime against children.
- Non-criminalization of Juvenile Sex Trafficking Victims
- Seeking Justice: Legal Approaches to Eliminate Criminal Liability for Child Sex Trafficking Victims
- Responding to Sex Trafficking Victim-Offender Intersectionality: A Guide for Criminal Justice Stakeholders
To learn more about state non-criminalization legislation and to take action in support of this critical issue, please visit Shared Hope’s non-criminalization campaign page.
If you are a lawmaker or advocate seeking to craft strong laws to fight juvenile sex trafficking and wish to speak with Shared Hope’s Policy Team for technical assistance, please visit request a consultation.