Memo to California Progressives: Sex With Children Is a Serious Crime

EDITORIAL: A bill introduced to make purchases of child sex a felony has been rendered largely toothless courtesy of amendments made to placate progressive Democrats.

A view of the California state capitol building in Sacramento, Calif.
A view of the California state capitol building in Sacramento, Calif. (photo: Arturo Holmes / Getty)

Most Americans living outside of California — as well as most Californians themselves — probably would be surprised and dismayed to learn that buying sex from children aged 14 to 17 is merely a misdemeanor there. 

If this heinous crime doesn’t merit designation as a felony, with the more severe penalties associated with that legal category, then what crime does?

But even more surprising and dismaying is what’s unfolding right now in the California Legislature. A bill introduced to rectify the situation, by making these purchases of child sex a felony, has been rendered largely toothless courtesy of amendments made to placate progressive Democrats.

As it stands, purchasing sex in California with a minor aged 14 to 17 results in a maximum sentence of only one year in county jail, and some culprits serve as little as two days. The legislation intended to rectify this legal insufficiency is titled S.B. 1414, and it was introduced by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. As originally authored by Grove, the new bill would have made buying sex from these minors a felony in all circumstances, thereby increasing the maximum penalties to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine, as well as registration as a sex offender.

While S.B. 1414 was a bipartisan initiative and attracted widespread public support when it was introduced, this didn’t prevent it from being gutted by the state Senate’s Public Safety Committee in April. The committee amended the bill to keep the crime as only a misdemeanor when the victims are 16 or 17. And even when the children involved are 14 or 15, it won’t be mandatory to charge perpetrators with a felony, courtesy of the committee amendments. 

The amended version was subsequently passed by the entire Senate in late May. This watering down of the legislation has generated a well-deserved wave of criticism — including from advocates for victims of sexual trafficking — inside and outside of California. Catholic leaders in California have rightly objected as well, calling for the original version of the bill to be reinstated and passed into law.

Why was S.B. 1414 undermined by progressive Democrats in the state Senate? Ostensibly, their concerns centered around the issue of convicting young people who were themselves close in age to the minors from whom they purchased sex, thereby saddling these younger perpetrators with serious criminal records and the permanent stigma of having been classified as sex offenders. 

Yet if that were really the primary concern, the tweaking of the bill’s original text would have been far less extensive. What’s more broadly in play is the long-standing progressive hostility to the tough-on-crime sentencing policies that took root across America in the 1990s. In some cases, this resistance is merited. So-called “three strikes” incarceration measures, which disproportionately impact members of minorities, have resulted in long-term sentences for relatively minor offenses while delivering minimal improvements in terms of reducing the overall incidence of crime. 

But the dynamics are completely different when it comes to combating sex with minors. Here, to protect the children it’s critical to deter the customers — and the only way to accomplish this deterrence is to toughen the punishments. 

State Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, herself a California progressive, framed the issue correctly during last month’s debate on the state Senate floor, where she declared she was “done” with coddling commercial sex customers by sparing them from harsher penalties. 

“I don’t want more people in prison, but I don’t want people buying girls ... and I’m tired of saying it’s okay and that we have to protect the men who do it,” Eggman said.

For its part, the Catholic Church has never been an advocate for sweeping incarceration policies either. But, like Eggman, state Church leaders have discerned that in this specific context, more severe punishments are necessary as an instrument to protect children from the scourge of commercial sex trafficking. 

Noting that most victims come from situations of severe family breakdown and frequently have experienced abuse, homelessness, substance addiction and other grave social harms, the California Catholic Conference has called for the state Legislature to restore the original provisions of the child-sex-trafficking legislation. “Take 30 seconds RIGHT NOW to ask your representative to amend SB 1414 to protect ALL children,” the state conference advises its California flock. 

Sometimes advice like that can seem futile in the political arena, given the entrenched political biases that so often are in play. In this instance, however, there is strong reason to believe public pressure will have a constructive outcome. That’s because S.B. 1414 is companion legislation to S.B. 14, a bill to fight human trafficking that Grove introduced last year. 

Because it was going to make human trafficking a serious felony, the state Legislature’s anti-incarceration faction initially stymied that earlier bill in the state Assembly. But following an immediate and intense public outcry, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his strong support for the bill. The next day, the state Assembly’s Democratic leadership overrode the progressives’ objections and Newsom signed Grove’s human-trafficking bill into law a few weeks later.

Something along the same lines needs to occur this time around in the Golden State. Anything less than the reclassification there of all commercial sex with minors as a felony ought to be viewed by state voters as a serious legislative transgression — and one that’s deserving of severe political punishment this fall via the ballot box.