On April 10, 2023, two advocacy groups for gender equality and justice released a new report arguing that young women—especially young women of color—continue to be punished for violence they endure as victims of sex trafficking.
In Criminalized Survivors: Today’s Abuse to Prison Pipeline for Girls, the directors of Georgetown Law School’s Center on Gender Justice and Opportunity and the national human rights organization Rights4Girls call out laws and policies that dump these young women into detention facilities, rather than into treatment centers that they desperately need. The report also highlights the types of charges these young women faced, noting they are more likely than males to be arrested for low-level offenses.
Just how big is the problem? The number of girls arrested for prostitution or “commercialized vice” has decreased since 2015, with only 100 minors charged in the five-year period ending in 2020, the most current numbers available. But the authors of the new report, Yasmin Vafa and Rebecca Epstein, believe the number is misleading.
They say that reforms they promoted—most specifically a ban against arresting minors for prostitution—have backfired. In states where arresting minors for prostitution was banned, teen girls are now arrested for low-level offenses such as loitering, drug possession or disorderly conduct, which the authors term “masking charges.” Shockingly, they are also charged with recruiting other victims, an offense that leads to longer prison sentences and placement on sex offender registries.
“This practice, which holds child victims liable as traffickers themselves, fails to recognize the broader circumstances: that is, the violence, coercion, threats, manipulation, and other forms of control that traffickers use to force their victims to exploit other children,” say Vafa and Epstein.
In worst-case scenarios, victims kill their abusers. PLN has reported the case of Peiper Lewis, who was 15 when she was trafficked to a 37-year-old who drugged and raped her repeatedly before she fatally stabbed him in 2019. Paroled from an Iowa prison, she made a brief escape from a halfway house in November 2022 before she was recaptured. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.54.] A state judge took pity on her and put her back on probation in May 2023.
A bill proposed in Congress in 2021 would have given federal judges leeway to disregard mandatory minimums when sentencing sex-trafficked minors. “Sara’s Law” was named for Sara Kruzan, who was 16 in 1995 when she fatally shot the pimp who sexually abused her, serving 19 years in California prisons for his murder before her 2013 parole. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) pardoned her in July 2022.
The law wasn’t passed, but until its provisions are enacted, Vafa and Epstein hope their report will guide prosecutors and others in the “injustice system” to more humanely decide the fate of these young women. Their recommendations include ending the “credibility discount” against girls and holding law enforcement “accountable for disregard of abuse claims”; ending “punishment of children who act against abusers in self-defense”; addressing “disproportionately high rates of sexual abuse against girls with intersecting identities”; and ensuring that “efforts to address gender-based violence account for the unique experiences and vulnerabilities of adolescent girls.”
Asked Epstein, “What messages are we sending when it’s the survivor of sexual abuse who is the one who gets locked up?”
Additional source: Washington Post
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