State lawmakers look to crack down on child sex trafficking

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature is looking at ways to crack down further on child sex trafficking, such as imposing big fines for people who pay for sex with minors and publicly shaming them if they don't pay the fine.

In all, lawmakers have introduced at least nine bills targeting those who solicit sex with minors and pimps who force teenagers into prostitution. The bills are part of an overall effort to give police the tools to more aggressively target sex traffickers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear public testimony on six bills Monday. One would impose a mandatory $20,000 fine on people convicted of offering to pay for sex with minors. If a john doesn't pay the fine, his name, address and photo would be published online or in a newspaper.

Quashing demand for child prostitutes would make trafficking less profitable for pimps, said Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Mike Geiger, who supervises human trafficking investigations.

"We have to make it painful and untenable to purchase children," Geiger said.

Another bill would specify that ignorance about a person's age is not a defense for child sex trafficking charges, an attempt to prevent pimps from arguing they thought a woman was at least 18 when they induced her to have sex for money.

In a bid to create a safe environment for victims rescued from trafficking operations, two bills are aimed at promoting shelter and treatment programs for victims.

"If you can break the relationship between the pimp and the female you can help that person get out of the volatile situation they're in," said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of the committee that is considering sex trafficking bills.

Geiger and other experts in sex trafficking say it's a difficult crime to combat. Pimps use blackmail, intimidation and violence to force cooperation from teenage girls they're selling for sex. Many teens won't even acknowledge they're victims and will protect pimps, making it difficult to convict sex traffickers and forcing police to develop other strategies to identify exploited youths.

Pimps convicted of compelling prostitution face mandatory minimum sentences of nearly 6 years.

Effectively battling child prostitution must involve more than just the police, said Esther Nelson, who manages programs for exploited youths for the Beaverton-based Sexual Assault Resource Center.

Schools and health providers can help identify girls at risk, she said, and nonprofits and advocacy groups can provide treatments, services and training. Everyone can promote an environment where exploited teens feel comfortable getting help, she said.

"If they see themselves as a prostitute and they think about all the stigma that comes with that word, then they're not going to talk about that part of their trauma," Nelson said. "If they don't talk about it they're not going to get treatment for it."

Among other proposals that aren't under consideration Monday is a bill that would give police more investigative tools like wire taps for prostitution investigations.

The bills are: SB425, SB426, SB427, SB428, SB429, SB430, HB2699, HB2714 and HB2941.

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