Youths will no longer be charged for prostitution under new law
By Beth Warren
Sexual slavery of adults and youths is spreading across the city and state at a rate that even police find "shocking," according to a study of cases from last year by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Vanderbilt Center for Community Studies.
Responding to the state's first study on the crime trend, lawmakers unanimously passed a series of bills protecting the minors and cracking down on those who exploit them. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bills Tuesday.
"This is a big deal for us," said state Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, who has been pushing for tougher penalties for pimps and johns for years.
"People still think of this as a problem with foreign countries and unfortunately that's just not the case anymore," said Marrero, chairwoman of the Shelby County legislative delegation. "This is a problem in Tennessee."
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, was among those co-sponsoring the bills.
"This sinister trade is largely underground but growing at an alarming rate," he wrote on his website.
A significant change in state law: Minors will no longer be prosecuted for prostitution. Instead, they will be viewed as victims.
Police will continue arresting pimps and johns but will return the minors to their parents or guardians.
Shelby County Juvenile Court Magistrate Dan Michael said the new law meshes with the state juvenile code's mission of rehabilitation instead of punishment.
He said he has seen many sad cases of girls and boys forced into prostitution by parents or boyfriends. Others were severely abused before getting into prostitution.
"I don't think a 15-year-old girl chooses prostitution as a way to pay the bills," the judge said. "She shouldn't have any bills to begin with -- she's 15."
To gauge the scope of the problem and search for solutions, the TBI and Vanderbilt teamed up last year to survey more than 1,000 law enforcement officers and social service workers. "The Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study: The Impact on Children and Youth 2011" was recently finalized.
"The results of the study are shocking," TBI Director Mark Gwyn wrote in his summary of the study findings.
Four counties -- Shelby, Davidson, Coffee and Knox -- reported more than 100 cases of the sex trafficking of minors.
Some of the minors, including some victimized in Memphis, are being brought in from foreign countries.
Pimps are also ensnaring runaways and those in foster care.
Nationally, victims are as young as 5, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The average age is believed to be 13.
The TBI study focused on minors ages 9-17.
"Trafficking victims rarely come forward to ask for help on their own because they are drugged, brainwashed, threatened and beaten into believing authorities will abuse them worse than their captors," Gwyn wrote.
"Children are moved from city to city in the state and sold as prostitutes."
The same reason the city and state are attractive to the drug trade -- easy access to interstates -- is also drawing in pimps who cart the minors across the country.
Tennessee lawmakers are fighting back with a multipronged approach.
One measure allows police to use a tactic they have employed for decades to battle the drug trade -- confiscating cars, homes and other property used in the sex trade.
This gives police extra muscle to topple prostitution rings.
Tennessee has also bumped up the punishment for johns from a misdemeanor to a felony if they pay for sex with a minor or mentally disabled person.
The new forfeiture law should help offset the cost of the beefed up prison sentences for the johns, Marrero said.
"We figured they can cover some of the cost of their own incarceration," she said.
The final bill creates an anonymous tip line, which will be run by the TBI, to report suspicions of human trafficking.
--Beth Warren: (901) 529-2383