By Dianne Feinstein
Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News
Sex trafficking of underage girls — often as young as 12 — is one of the most repulsive crimes imaginable, but it’s part of a multibillion-dollar underground industry in our state.
To combat this repugnant crime, we need to take tangible action on the local, state and federal level to punish traffickers and buyers and help the victims.
Carrie, a 21-year-old Los Angeles native, tells us about the type of criminals we’re dealing with.
When Carrie was 14, she ran away from home to escape an abusive stepfather. Carrie soon met a trafficker who held her captive for seven years, selling her for sex, beating and torturing her.
When Carrie was 17, she attempted suicide. At one point, Carrie’s trafficker held a gun to her head; she jumped from a moving car to escape death.
Carrie has been arrested on prostitution charges in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Orange Counties, and is covered in tattoos meant to show she is someone’s property.
Today Carrie’s trafficker is serving 30 years in prison and she’s getting help, but there are still thousands and thousands of girls being abused across the country.
Sex trafficking is a $99 billion industry, the second-largest criminal enterprise behind drugs. And California is one of the top destination states for trafficking victims, with Los Angeles a central hub.
While trafficking is largely hidden in cheap motel rooms, law enforcement officials confirm that it is widespread in our communities. Underage, vulnerable girls are recruited in their neighborhoods or schools, sometimes even on the Blue Line as it passes through low-income communities.
A number of factors have contributed to the rise of sex trafficking. The first is increased demand. Those who buy these girls for sex are rarely prosecuted, even though many know the girls are underage and being held against their will.
It should shock the conscience that an individual who buys a girl of middle-school age for sex is only given a misdemeanor citation under disorderly conduct charges.
The University of San Diego recently completed a three-year study of human trafficking, one of the most comprehensive analyses of the issue to date. In interviews with 702 first-time offenders and 189 victims, researchers found that “perceived impunity” from law enforcement is a key driver of demand.
The Internet has also fueled demand. Buyers are connected to underage girls in seconds, through websites like Backpage.com. More than 60 percent of victims are sold online at least once.
Second, victims like Carrie have long been charged as prostitutes rather than offered the help a young girl needs to build a new life. This creates a vicious cycle that drives girls back into the clutches of their abusers.
Third, the number of homeless, vulnerable children has skyrocketed.
In California, the number of homeless children has nearly quadrupled since 2003. According to recent data from the Department of Education, there are nearly 120,000 homeless youth in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties alone.
A 2013 Covenant House survey of trafficking victims showed that nearly half had been homeless. The University of San Diego study also confirmed that homeless and runaway children are at much greater risk of being trafficked.
The good news is that real progress is being made in Los Angeles. Sheriff Jim McDonnell and I convened a meeting in August with law enforcement, public officials and advocates to discuss how we can fight trafficking. There was consensus that this problem is growing quickly and meaningful action must be taken to address it.
The Board of Supervisors, with the support of Sheriff McDonnell, passed a resolution recognizing that child trafficking victims like Carrie are victims, not prostitutes.
Sheriff McDonnell has also partnered with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, District Attorney Jackie Lacey, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker and regional colleagues to launch a task force to better coordinate investigations and rescue operations, and connect victims to services. Through collaboration, traffickers will end up where they belong — behind bars — and these girls will get help.
Steps have also been taken to emphasize the prosecution of buyers and improve cooperation between law enforcement and federal prosecutors.
This month, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker secured the first federal conviction of such a buyer in the Los Angeles area. Charles Goswitz, a 59-year-old man from Torrance, was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison after he purchased sex from a 16-year-old trafficking victim.
While these are promising developments, we have a long way to go.
To reduce demand, prosecutions of buyers must be made a priority at all levels of the justice system. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, signed into law by President Obama in May, removes barriers to federal prosecutions of these individuals. U.S. attorneys in California should use these new tools to bring cases against these criminals.
The bill also included a provision that makes it a federal felony to knowingly “advertise” a minor for commercial sex acts. This new law enables the Department of Justice to crack down on sites that profit from advertising the sexual exploitation of children, which is key to reducing demand. These websites should be shut down for advertising minors for sex, and the question I have posed to the department is “Why haven’t they been?”
Coordination between law enforcement and social service providers must be continually improved so victims don’t fall through the cracks, and we need to do much more to address youth homelessness, one of the root causes of the trafficking epidemic.
A key step is passing bipartisan legislation Sen. Rob Portman and I introduced, the Homeless Children and Youth Act. The bill would make it easier for young people living in motels and couch surfing to get help from local nonprofits like Covenant House California.
The bottom line is that thousands of children are being sold every day for sex, many right here in Los Angeles. We owe it to these children to open our eyes to this epidemic and take real action to stop it.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein represents California.