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Bill targeting child prostitution advances

A House committee unanimously approved legislation that would carve out a lesser crime for men who unknowingly solicit child prostitutes, while still retaining tougher penalties for those who knowingly pay children for sex.

Three years ago, lawmakers made it a class 2 felony to knowingly solicit an act of child prostitution. That law contained enhanced penalties for the offense, with a minimum prison sentence of 10.5 years for a first offense if the prostitute was between 15 and 17 years old.

However, the law provided a defense to the crime if the prostitute was older than 15, and if the defendant could not “reasonably have known” the age of the prostitute. That led to very few, if any, prosecutions.

“The county attorneys have turned these cases down because they didn’t meet the threshold of a likelihood of conviction,” said Rep. Adam Driggs, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of H2699.

Driggs’ bill, which was approved 7-0 on Feb.18 by the House Judiciary Committee, would make it a class 6 felony to unknowingly solicit a child prostitute. He said the goal is to increase prosecutions of child prostitution.

Anyone convicted of the lesser felony would face at least six months in jail.

Although the bill was approved unanimously, several lawmakers voiced a concern. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat, said proponents of H2699 hadn’t produced any evidence that the current law wasn’t working. That law took several years to approve, and she said she wanted to ensure that wasn’t the case for tweaking it.

“I’d like us to do it correctly and do it right,” she said.

And Phoenix Democrat Ben Miranda said he was concerned that the county attorneys were passing on child prostitution cases and instead referring them to cities for prosecution as misdemeanors.

“I think that really, really is where we may have a problem,” he said. “Obviously, their priorities aren’t addressing this issue.”

Peggy Bilsten, the former vice mayor of Phoenix and a crusader against child prostitution, said the change proposed in H2699 sends a message to johns that they won’t get off with a simple $50 fine for a misdemeanor if they hire child prostitutes.

“If you pay to rape one of our children, you’re going to serve time,” she said.

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