Young prostitutes would be seen as victims, not criminals

By BECKY McKENDRY

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan law may soon come closer to mirroring federal law when dealing with minors engaged in prostitution, but not close enough for some anti-human trafficking advocates.

A new House bill would presume that any 16- or 17-year-old working in prostitution was “coerced into child sexually abusive activity” and would be offered assistance to avoid prosecution.

The proposal comes as part of a broad, 19-bill initiative to combat human trafficking in Michigan. Other bills in the initiative would create counseling services for trafficking victims, allow trafficking victims to sue their captors for civil damages and more.

This bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake, says the proposal would help break the cycle of children caught in the sex trade.

“This bill is a vital piece of this whole effort to fight trafficking,” Kowall said. “These children have to have a safe harbor and be deemed on the outset as victims, not as criminals and prostitutes.”

Currently, a minor 16 years or older convicted of prostitution is guilty of a misdemeanor, which can include jail time and fines.

Cosponsors include Reps. Nancy Jenkins, R- Clayton; Matt Lori, R-Constantine; Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; and Bruce Rendon, R-Lake City.

Federal law regards anyone engaged in prostitution under the age of 18 as a sex trafficking victim, but Michigan law allows prosecution of minors aged 16 or 17. Under Kowall’s bill, minors could still face state criminal charges if they refuse to participate in court-ordered programs.

That discrepancy leaves some anti-human trafficking advocates less than satisfied with the legislation.

“If you are under the age of 18 and involved in prostitution, you are a victim, point blank,” said Bridgette Carr, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “Shifting the responsibility of avoiding prosecution onto the victim does not stop the cycle of sexual abuse and trafficking.”

Carr, who directs the U of M Human Trafficking Clinic in Ann Arbor, said that although she supports the bill, she prefers that Michigan mirror the federal law and provide immunity from criminal charges.

“If I hear about a 16- or 17-year-old victim, I’ll send them to the federal authorities instead,” Carr said. “When we say ‘we won’t prosecute you as long as you do what we want you to do,’ it’s not treating the victim as a victim.”

Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force in East Lansing, agrees.

“I like the Legislature’s work very much,” White said. “But why are we making special exemptions when there’s a clear federal law?

“It seems like we’re so close,” White said. “It’s a good compromise, but I’m not sure I’m ready for compromise.”

Kowall said although legislative efforts are in the early stages, she will support providing resources that include mental health treatment to deal with possible trauma and harsher punishments for johns who solicit sex from minors.

The bill is pending in the House Criminal Justice Committee.

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