California Shifts Approach to Child Prostitution, and Church Steps in to Help

A new state law decriminalizes underage prostitution for the minors involved, while retaining penalties for the adults who exploit them.

The dome of the California State Capitol building in Sacramento
The dome of the California State Capitol building in Sacramento (photo: Alex Wild, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

OAKLAND, Calif. — A California law that decriminalizes underage prostitution for the minors involved went into effect Jan. 1, after sparking a flurry of debate on social media.

“Beginning on Jan. 1, prostitution by minors will be legal in California,” claimed California Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, in a Dec. 29 Washington Examiner column that attacked Senate Bill 1322 and lit up the internet.

The following day, California state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who introduced the law, S.B. 1322, criticized Allen on Twitter.

“I denounce false claims made by Republicans on my bill #SB1322 that decriminalizes sexually exploited minors,” Mitchell tweeted.

Truth be told, the social-media buzz generated by Mitchell and Allen’s skirmish barely scratched the surface of the state’s complex new balancing act on the issue of teenage prostitution. Further, now that the law is in effect, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who is making the sexual trafficking of minors a key priority, is teaming up with the Diocese of Oakland to provide new solutions for teenagers who have been caught up in the sex trade.

“My view is that we need to look at these children as victims, not perpetrators,” O’Malley told the Register.

“If they are being trafficked, someone else has been abusing them.”


The New Law

The law introduced by Mitchell puts an end to California’s long-standing practice of detaining and charging minors who have been sexually exploited for commercial gain.

Now, when police identify young people engaged in prostitution, they must contact local welfare agencies to report potential cases of abuse and neglect. And if a victim appears to be in immediate danger, temporary shelter may be provided.

Further, the California Department of Social Services is directed to offer assistance designed to heal the trauma inflicted by sexual exploitation and provide training for future employment.

As the new law continues to stir confusion and criticism, Mitchell has emphasized that adult perpetrators still face criminal charges and penalties for statutory rape or the sexual trafficking of minors.

But Allen and other critics of the law have questioned whether state welfare agencies have adequate resources to intervene and help victims sever their ties to pimps and other criminal elements engaged in the sexual exploitation of minors.

“Simply put, more time on the street and less time in jail means more money for pimps and more victims for them to exploit," Allen argued in his column.

In the debate that preceded the California Legislature’s vote, several lawmakers and law enforcement officials put forward similar concerns.

“Right now, the best way to get these young women help, the best way to rescue them from this lifestyle, is by keeping law enforcement involved through the ability to arrest,” Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, argued.

“I am not saying these bills should never pass. But we are not ready for them right now,” Jane Creighton, coordinator of the human trafficking unit at the L.A. County District Attorney's Office, told the Los Angeles Times last summer.


Alameda County’s Approach

Up north, Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County’s district attorney, initially echoed these concerns, but then became a high-profile supporter of the law.

Alameda County had already established a nationally recognized program that educated local law enforcement about the sexual trafficking of minors. The outcome was a collaborative strategy that allowed prosecutors to adopt a case-by-case approach, with some young people referred to local social services, while others were charged and received help within the juvenile justice system.

Now, O’Malley will play an invaluable role as she works closely with Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland and Catholic Charities East Bay, the local affiliate, to develop a residential program that offers appropriate services for girls, ages 12-17, who have been sexually trafficked.

Their ambitious goal is to design a model program that can be adopted by dioceses across the state, as the new law takes effect, and expanded resources are needed.

Mary Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities East Bay, confirmed that the agency has already begun to lay the groundwork for licensing the residential program and developing a range of services.

“This program [is unique], because it will be the first [in the area] to have long-term care and will offer a home-like atmosphere for up to 13 girls, with 24-hour support,” Kuhn told the Register.

Residents will be assessed for mental-health services, and on-site classes for academics, life skills and job training will be offered.

“There will be therapy for trauma. That is one of our strengths at Catholic Charities East Bay: We already work with victims of crime, families who have lost loved ones to homicide, and children and teens in communities with tremendous crime,” said Kuhn.

Kuhn and O’Malley note that the profile of sexual-trafficking victims includes both U.S.-born minors — girls and boys — and young people smuggled across the border from Mexico.

“We know that female victims can come from any background, urban or rural, and any socioeconomic status,” O’Malley explained.

But she also pointed to social research findings that suggest about half the victims are African-American, while 15% are Latinos, and the rest are Caucasian or come from other racial groups.

Oakland’s population is 34% African-American, with roughly an equal number of white residents and a smaller percentage of Hispanics and Asians.

Sexual-trafficking victims often come from abusive homes, including some runaways who are then recruited on the street. And authorities warn that the internet has made it much easier to entice minors into the commercial sex industry.


Reassessing Strategies

California is the latest state to reassess its law enforcement strategy for dealing with the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

New York and Washington, for example, send teens arrested for prostitution into rehabilitation programs at the discretion of the judge or the prosecutor, respectively. Massachusetts, for its part, offers similar social services, while keeping the criminal charges pending until the minors complete a program of rehabilitation.

Hilary Chester, the associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ anti-trafficking program, housed with the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services, applauded attempts by state legislators to rethink the standard approach to underage prostitution. But she underscored the need to provide appropriate and sufficient resources to help victims leave the sex trade and prevent others from being exploited.

Chester singled out the number of children in foster care, who often fall between the cracks as they reach adolescence.

“They have spent considerable time in and out of home care, including child protection services. Those who don’t have good support systems seem especially vulnerable,” she said, and she made clear that boys, as well as girls, are at risk.

Further, she noted that the commercial trafficking of minors for sex was linked to two other dangerous trends: the explosion of online pornography and the sharp rise in opioid addiction.

Chester has received anecdotal reports of children getting involved with “bad actors who videotape them in compromising acts and use that to compel them to do more of the same.”

“It is an ongoing blackmail situation,” she said, noting that the videos can be uploaded onto unregulated spheres of the internet, known as the “dark net.”



Specialists provide no hard data on the precise number of minors forced into the sex trade.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs enforcement put out press releases when they have had big busts, and in last few years, they have had about 900 prosecutions,” said Chester, who noted that a “Blue Campaign” launched by the Department of Homeland Security also made the issue a national priority.

Prosecutions that put perpetrators behind bars “can begin to send a message that you can’t get away with this crime,” she said, while expressing frustration that many criminals “see very little risk.”

Back in Alameda County, D.A. O’Malley has also prosecuted thousands of adults involved with the sexual exploitation of minors, and that important work will continue.

Now, though, the former prosecutor will apply her knowledge and experience to help rehabilitate young victims and keep them off the streets.

As Mitchell explained, after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed her law in September: “This is our opportunity to do what we say is right in cases of sex trafficking: Stop the exploiters, and help the exploited.”



Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.