Capitol Alert

California lawmakers move to loosen prostitution penalties

Sacramento County deputiess handcuff suspects at a room at Great Value Inn on Watt Avenue. The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department raided the motel and served an arrest warrant on a motel operator on suspicion of operating a house of prostitution. Also arrested were four women suspected on prostitution. August 3, 2010
Sacramento County deputiess handcuff suspects at a room at Great Value Inn on Watt Avenue. The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department raided the motel and served an arrest warrant on a motel operator on suspicion of operating a house of prostitution. Also arrested were four women suspected on prostitution. August 3, 2010 Sacramento Bee file

The California Assembly moved to loosen prostitution penalties Thursday, narrowly passing bills to shield minors from charges and nix mandatory minimum sentences over the objection of law enforcement groups who warned of helping johns and traffickers.

Senate Bill 1322 coincides with a shift in how many policymakers view commercial sex. Increasingly, the standard is to see minors selling their bodies as victims who should not be prosecuted but should be shown leniency and offered services.

Lawmakers this year filed bills to prevent trafficking victims from incurring criminal records. In a similar vein, SB 1322 would bar arresting or charging people under the age of 18 for prostitution or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution. Currently such offenses are punishable as misdemeanors.

“This is a bill where we can make a very clear statement that we are standing up for children as victims and that law enforcement can go after the real perpetrators,” the traffickers, said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, adding later, “All we’re doing if we perpetuate current law is saying, ‘You are not a victim. You’re a criminal.’”

After the bill fell short on multiple initial votes, the measure squeezed out on a narrow 41-29 vote.

Law enforcement groups representing district attorneys and sheriffs castigated the bill, saying it would make it more difficult to pry young women away from life on the streets. Ruanne Dozier, a deputy district attorney for Sacramento County, warned in an interview ahead of the vote that depriving cops of the ability to arrest minors and detain them in a safe place would make it impossible to break through the “brainwashing” by their traffickers.

“The whole idea is to bring them into this facility, a detention facility, where they’re secure and they’re geographically separated from the trafficker,” Dozier said, arguing her office rarely ends up charging minors with prostitution or loitering. She said the bill would “empower the traffickers … they’ll be recruiting girls younger and younger because nothing’s going to happen to them.”

Some lawmakers echoed that argument, agreeing with the premise that no minor chooses to go into sex work and saying SB 1322 would backfire and harm young people.

“This bill does not help these young women,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank. “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.”

Another bill curbing prostitution penalties winning lawmakers’ approval on Thursday was Senate Bill 1129, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders. It squeaked out on a 42-26 vote despite criticism that it would offer too much leniency to people who solicit prostitutes.

“This bill does not allow those who break the law to walk free,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, “but the severity and the length of that penalty will be determined by a judge and not by an inflexible, mandated sentence.”

Both bills return to the state Senate for final votes before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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