By Mrinal Gokhale
Representatives LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee’s 17th district and Jill Billings of La Crosse have introduced a bill this week proposing a “safe harbor” for child sex trafficking victims, so they are no longer charged with child prostitution.
The representatives want victims to be eligible for group homes and residential facilities and receive housing, counseling, education, healthcare and other services needed to heal.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, 13-years-old is the national average age for children to enter the sex trade.
Johnson and Billings became inspired to create this bill because they feel Wisconsin’s laws are unfair in terms of charging children victims with the crime.
“Under our system, the state doesn’t have to open an investigation unless the perpetrator is a parent, guardian or caregiver,” Johnson noted.
“Individuals under age 17 charged with child prostitution don’t qualify for foster care and go to a juvenile detention center. Consequences are worse for those 17 and older.”
Johnson went on to say that she hopes to see the safe harbor providing services to those up to age 18, although 17-year-olds are charged as adults in Wisconsin for the crime.
“If a young woman charged with prostitution got extended probation through a JIPS order, she may get extended supervision to remain in the system for the benefits,” she explained.
“Those who age out of the system may become homeless.”
If the safe harbor bill becomes a law, Wisconsin would become the twenty-third state in the United States to offer a safe harbor for child sex trafficking victims.
Some other Midwestern states that already have implemented the safe harbor act include Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan.
“I know of almost no states that punish children to prosecute the perpetrators,” said Johnson.
“Children are victims who don’t belong in juvenile centers. We need to address the root of the problem and figure out why children run away from home.”
Billings became interested in creating legislation child sex trafficking after attending a conference on the subject in La Crosse.
She also feels that the safe harbor act is more effective than placing victims in prison.
“Minnesota has a safe harbor where children were more cooperative in helping authorities find perpetrators, compared to those getting arrested,” she said.
“The pimps tell their victims how to hide information from authorities, and even bail the children out of jail to put them back into the streets.”
In terms of funding, Johnson said the bill was previously rejected in 2013 due to high cost, but Governor Walker has proposed $2 million dollars for the issue in the 2015-2016 budget. She said that the state would decide how to allocate funds for services.
“The state is paying no matter what, especially if we ignore the issue.
The Department of Child and Human Services must redirect funding and launch investigations,” she said.
“Over 20 Wisconsin counties have sex trafficking cases and Milwaukee is the feeder city. People have met children here and took them to bigger cities like Chicago.”
Billings believes that the bill may take a long time to reach a committee, but strives to create a sense of urgency.
She feels that educating others on the bill is a priority, because some Wisconsin legislators still feel minors should be charged with child prostitution.
“Many people are pretty focused on the budget right now, making it hard to address our bill,” she explained.
“We need create a dialogue to draw attention to the problem not just in Milwaukee, but throughout the state.”
Refer to the Milwaukee Human Trafficking Task Force of Milwaukee for more information on child sex trafficking.