Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda) and District Attorney Nancy O’Malley yesterday celebrated the passage of a new California law that quadruples financial penalties for sexually exploiting minors.
“We’re trying to make it very clear that it will not be business as usual,” Swanson said at a press conference in Oakland’s Rene C. Davidson courthouse. “We will continue to look at laws that impact this situation to make sure we will demonstrate zero tolerance of the sexual exploitation of our minors.”
The Human Trafficking Accountability Act was written by Swanson and signed into law October 11. The new law strengthens penalties on pimping, pandering or procurement of a minor, increasing fines from $5000 to $20,000 per count. The law dedicates half of these penalty funds to support programs that serve sexually exploited minors.
“For criminal entrepreneurs, there is sadly no better return on your money and time, especially in these hard economic times, than selling a child for sex,” Deputy District Attorney Charmin Bock said. Many drug traffickers are turning to human trafficking, Bock said, because it tends to be relatively low-risk, but still very high-profit. According to United Nations estimates, there are as many as 300,000 sexually exploited children and youth under the age of 18 within the United States alone.
The new California law will also categorize abduction or procurement of a minor within the definition of “criminal profiteering activity.” Previous laws did not include child exploitation under the category of criminal profiteering. The new definition lets law enforcement seize assets connected to traffickers and “target what the bad boys treasure most: their money,” Bock said.
The money seized will be deposited in the Victim-Witness Assistance Fund, with 50% of those funds to be granted to community-based organizations that serve underaged victims of human trafficking.
The law is the second in a series of attempts headed by county civic leaders to curb what Swanson calls a “growing epidemic” of human trafficking in California. The first attempt, approved by Governor Schwarzenegger in September 2008, authorized the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to create a pilot program to direct minors involved with human trafficking into support services rather than punishment.
“It ensures these minors are treated as victims and not as criminals,” Swanson said.
O’Malley said this diversion puts Alameda County “completely in the forefront” of laws regarding the sexual exploitation of minors, and that the Human Trafficking Accountability Act is also an important step. “This is the first move to increase punishment of the pimps,” she said.
It is a move for which parents Wayne and Gina, who attended the press conference but asked their surname not be published, are very grateful. In 2005, the couple’s then 14-year-old daughter ran away from home, they said, and they later learned that the man their daughter had run away with used the internet to solicit people to pay for sex with her.
For Wayne and Gina, the DA’s pilot program would have defined how law enforcement and prosecutors handle trafficking cases such as this one. “In our experience, different jurisdictions dealt with things differently,” Wayne said.
He described how before there was confusion as to how to treat the children involved: as criminals, or as victims. “There’s a big difference in approach,” he said. “At the end of the day it allows the prosecutor to file stronger charges.”
The couple said they also relied heavily on the non-profit organizations that came to their aid, like the Interagency Children’s Policy Council. The new Human Trafficking Accountability Act is designed to direct funding toward organizations like these.
Wayne and his wife said they are grateful to Swanson, Bock, O’Malley, and the many others who worked to get this legislation passed.
“They’ve really taken the lead on this,” Wayne said. “Not only for our family, but for all the families.”