The Dock and the Bay

A few weeks ago, I wrote a short post about underage prostitutes in Las Vegas in which I cited some eye-opening statistics from a report that had just been released: more than 400 minors were found working as prostitutes in the city in May 2007; almost 1,500 minors have faced prostitution-related charges in the area since 1994; and 157 juveniles were brought in on such charges last year, up slightly from 153 in 2006.

I was troubled by the comments of Las Vegas Family Court Judge William Voy, who adjudicates many of these trafficking victims as delinquents. “These kids don’t really belong in juvenile justice but don’t fit anywhere else in the system,” he said. “They’re out there being victimized but also committing a delinquent act, prostitution. There is no alternative but the detention center.”

I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of that approach a few weeks back, and I’m even more skeptical of it now. “Locking these girls up in detention centers is a good way to ensure that if and when they get out, they’ll have only a limited set of ‘job skills’ to draw on, the same ‘skills’ that got them locked up in the first place,” I wrote. “Breaking that cycle should be the first order of business, not punishing them for acts they committed under duress. If the state of Nevada doesn’t have a sensible program for these girls, it should build one.”

Las Vegas officials who share my view should look toward the Bay Area for models to replicate. In the third of what appears to be a weeklong series on the subject, the Oakland Tribune today features a profile of Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, who, the paper explains, “is leading a state-wide charge to spare teenage prostitutes and jail their pimps.”

“We treat the girls as victims and deliver specialized services to them, and we prosecute the pimps to the maximum sentences possible,” Bock said.

Bock was the first attorney in the state to prosecute a case using the 2006 law that made it easier to charge people with human trafficking for sex. Since then her office has filed felony trafficking charges against eighty-four pimps; forty-nine of them have been convicted; another twenty-eight cases are pending.

She is also the force behind the Sexually Exploited Minors Network, established in 2003 to provide counseling and assistance as an alternative to detention. And she has reached out to local police officers to train them and earn their support for her approach. “Today, when Oakland police arrest a pimp or a minor involved in prostitution, a social worker advocate is on the scene to deliver counseling to the youngster, while the police consult with Bock–on the scene and throughout the investigation–on what charges to bring against the apprehended pimps,” the paper explains.

Naturally, with any subject so sensitive, there are complications: “Officers try to avoid arresting girls, but may do so to help target the pimp, or because the girls will be safer in juvenile hall than under the coercive tutelage of a pimp.” And, Bock notes, sometimes it can be difficult to prosecute the case if the girl is unwilling, or scared, to testify.

It’s not perfect. But without question, it’s vastly preferable to Voy’s method.

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