Lawmakers revive bipartisan ‘safe harbor’ bill to fight child sex trafficking

The Capital Times [Madison WI]

September 25, 2021

By Jessie Opoien

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is reviving an effort to protect children from sexual exploitation by reintroducing a bill that would prohibit charging minors with prostitution. 

Gaining momentum has been a challenge for the proposal, as some elected officials have previously raised concerns that it would legalize prostitution or that it could lead to increased targeting of minors for sex trafficking. The bill’s authors stressed during a public hearing on Thursday that neither of those things is true. They also noted that each time the proposal — known as a “safe harbor” law — is reintroduced, it garners more support.

“Right now, if children fear they’re going to go into the criminal justice system, they’re not going to feel willing to reveal their (trafficking) perpetrators for fear of punishment,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. “We need to protect them, get them to protective social services so they can get on the right track (and) make sure they don’t continue to be victims.”

The logic behind the bill is straightforward: the age of consent in Wisconsin is 18. If a child under the age of 18 is participating in a sex act, regardless of whether money is involved, the child cannot have legally consented to that act.

Groups supporting the measure include the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, the Children and Law section of the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association. Wisconsin Family Action is the only group registered against the bill. 

In addition to outlawing human trafficking, Wisconsin requires law enforcement to refer suspected child trafficking to a local child welfare office. Under state law, child sex trafficking is classified as child abuse for the purpose of child protection services.

Trafficking victims may also petition to have a conviction vacated or a record expunged for a prostitution charge. 

“This bill does not legalize prostitution,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee. “This bill only prevents child victims from being charged with prostitution while providing them an opportunity to get the services, counseling and treatment they need to lead healthy, productive lives as adults.”

According to a 2019 state Department of Justice report, 24 agencies from 16 counties reported at least one juvenile arrest for prostitution between 2014 and 2018.

But treating children as criminals “only furthers this process of victimization,” said Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the state public defender’s office. 

The legislation “strengthens the obligation of the state to protect and serve vulnerable youth who are survivors of sex trafficking,” said Amanda Merkwae, legislative adviser for the state Department of Children and Families, which supports the bill.

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine — chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety — noted that the absence of a prostitution charge doesn’t mean law enforcement “throws its hands up” and walks away from the situation. Rather, the policy would help remove the child from the situation and potentially identify the trafficker.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws granting prosecutorial immunity (generally for prostitution, but sometimes for additional crimes) for trafficked youth, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin offers diversion opportunities, but not immunity.

University of Kentucky study on the state’s “safe harbor” laws, released in March, found a “consistently small number of juveniles charged with prostitution-related offenses from 2007 to 2017” along with a “slight increase in the number of human trafficking cases.”

Several advocates and lawmakers who spoke at Thursday’s hearing shared stories of trafficking victims who remained loyal to their traffickers out of fear that going to law enforcement would lead to their arrest. 

“In circumstances where a child is engaged in sex trafficking, the trafficker will manipulate and exploit the risk of the child’s prosecution to deter the child from seeking help,” said Ozaukee County Sheriff Jim Johnson.

The last time the bill was introduced, in 2019, it passed the Senate but was not taken up by the Assembly.

“This is a never, never, never give up bill,” said Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse.