By Sanne Specht
New legislation is being heralded as a significant step in diminishing the demand for child sex trafficking.
Senate Bill 673 will make it a felony for first-time offenders who purchase sex from a minor in Oregon. The bill passed the House and Senate late last week, and will soon be signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber, said former Medford resident Liz Alston of Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization based in Washington state and dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking.
An emergency clause in the bill will ensure the penalties of purchasing sex from a minor goes into effect immediately, Alston said.
"This is just huge for us," Alston said. "A felony is a deterrent to these guys."
People can be charged with patronizing a trafficked child if they engage in — or offer or agree to engage in — a commercial sex act with a child under the age of 18 or a law enforcement officer who is posing as a minor.
The law will not require prosecutors to prove the defendant knew the child was under 18, and the defendant won't be able to claim ignorance regarding the child's age, Alston said.
The new law will make the trafficking charge a Class B felony. If convicted, a person faces 30 days in jail, a $10,000 fine and a requirement to attend sex offender treatment programs. The judge may also require that person to register as a sex offender, said Joel Shapiro, a former prosecutor and lobbyist for the Kids Are Nor For Sale in Oregon Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations such as Shared Hope, police and prosecutors.
A second conviction will bring mandatory sex offender registration, Shapiro said.
Between 100,000 and 300,000 children are reported missing and/or exploited nationwide every year. Many are trapped in prostitution, pornography and sexual entertainment industries, becoming victims of sex trafficking through force, fraud or coercion, Alston said.
As laws against child sex trafficking continued to grow stronger in other states, law enforcement officials reported the market for sex with children began steadily climbing in Oregon, she said.
"Oregon is currently one of only nine states where it is not a felony to purchase sex from a minor," Alston said.
Oregon became a haven for pimps bringing prostituted children up the "Kiddie Track" from California to Washington, officials say. Police are now aggressively fighting child trafficking along the Interstate 5 corridor, particularly between Portland and Seattle. But pimping out children continues also to be a Southern Oregon problem, Alston said.
"On any given weekend, I can look at a well-known online site and see 35 girls that are for sale through sex trafficking in the Medford area," she said.
Rebecca Bender, 29, escaped the sex trafficking trade after being lured there as a teen by a man she believed loved her. Now an educator on the topic, the Grants Pass mother of three just weeks ago testified in Salem in support of the bill.
"This is such a huge step for Oregon," Bender said.
Both Oregon chambers started out with bills to make buying sex with children a felony, to protect child victims of sex trafficking, and to give law enforcement greater tools to investigate and prosecute such crimes. Subsequent amended versions made the trafficking charge a felony upon second conviction. But, at the 11th hour, the bill was taken back to a conference committee where the charge became a felony for first-time offenders, Shapiro said.
Shapiro and Alston credit "grass-roots" activism and media coverage with ensuring the bill passed with the teeth intended.
"There is a huge distinction between a misdemeanor versus a felony," Shapiro said.
The bill passed 30-to-0 in the Senate and 56-to-1 in the House, with Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, casting the sole dissenting vote, Shapiro said.
The Kids Are Nor For Sale in Oregon Coalition tried to ensure the Legislature passed a comprehensive bill that would have the resources and tools necessary to help victims and prosecution efforts, Shapiro said.
Bender said the bill also will require annual training for law enforcement officials and first responders. Because of the dynamics of the sex-trafficking relationship between pimps and child victims, police often think they are responding to a domestic violence call, she said.
"I think this bill will make Oregon a safer place for our children," Bender said.
There is still much work to be done to end the scourge of child sex trafficking, Alston said. But making life tougher on the "johns" by pinning a felony label on their actions will help deter demand, she said.
"A monetary penalty is not enough," Alston said. "People think of sex trafficking as a man in a van. But these guys (who are buying sex from minors) are lawmakers, businessmen, coaches or teachers. What they really don't want is a felony on their record. It's a lot harder for them to hide."