Linda Smith, founder of the advocacy group Shared Hope International, presented the state with a grade of C for its efforts to protect children from sex trafficking.
“There is an extensive tolerance of female trafficking in Arizona,” she said at a news conference held in the old State Capitol building.
Smith, who represented Washington state in the U.S. House from 1995-98, detailed the Protected Innocence Legislative Framework, an analysis of state laws conducted by her group and the American Center for Law and Justice.
The report graded states on their laws against sex trafficking, penalties for buyers, penalties for traffickers, penalties for facilitators, protection of victims and training law enforcement.
Smith criticized provisions in state law that reduce the charge in a child prostitution case from a Class 2 to a Class 6 felony if the girl is age 15 to 17 and the state can’t prove the buyer knew her age. That can reduce a sentence to 90 days from as much as 21 years, she said.
“There is no way to prove they know,” Smith said.
Amira Birger, a survivor of child sex trafficking who spoke at the news conference, said it’s ridiculous to think that most buyers don’t know they are paying for a sexual encounter with an underage prostitute. Birger remembers being placed in lines with other prostitutes while so-called johns picked them up.
“It was always the younger girls being picked,” Birger said.
Jami Throne, director of operations of Streetlight, a nonprofit that aims to eradicate child sex slavery, said the grade is appropriate.
“There are definitely areas in Arizona law that need to be changed to make it difficult for a customer to solicit sex to an underage girl,” she said.
Erin Otis, a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office who specializes in sex crimes, said her office successfully lobbied for removing the ability of pimps to claim they didn’t know a prostitute was underage but that lawmakers haven’t been willing to remove it for buyers.
Another way to attack the problem, she said, is tougher penalties for those caught paying underage girls for sex.
“We have many long hours ahead of us in order to work harder to bring penalties where they need to be,” Otis said.
Protected Innocence Report Card:
• Criminilization of domestic minor sex trafficking. Protection: Moderate.
• Criminal provisions for demand. Protection: Moderate.
• Criminal provisions for traffickers. Protection: Moderate.
• Criminal provisions for facilitators. Protection: Moderate.
• Protective provisions for the child victims. Protection: Moderate.
• Criminal justice tools for investigation and prosecutions. Protection: Moderate.