Teen Prostitution–Criminal Behavior?August 4, 2011
By: Madeline Levitt, CfJJ Intern
The number of children who become victims of sexual exploitation in the country is truly shocking. The Children’s Defense Fund estimates that about 100,000 American children between the ages of 11 and 14 enter into prostitution each year. Sadly, the average age of these girls has been declining, the number of girls involved is increasing, and the problem is spreading to more towns and cities annually.
Society’s response has traditionally been to prosecute both these girls and the men who take advantage of them. But in the last decade, new attention has been drawn to the issue and multiple states have begun to consider teen prostitution as a child welfare issue: Why are these girls living on the street rather than with a loving family in a safe home? Furthermore, will criminal prosecution help or will it simply traumatize them further and hamper their reintegration into society? Just recently, Connecticut, Washington, Illinois, New York, California, and Texas have passed legislation to decriminalize teen prostitution.
While prostitution by children under 18 is still criminal in Massachusetts, legislation is pending to decriminalize it. The bill would divert these children into the child welfare system with medical and counseling service programs rather than delinquency court if they are arrested. Attorney General Martha Coakley asserts that the bill “represents a shift in how police and prosecutors approach prostitution…All too often in the past the focus has been on arresting the young people pressured into prostitution and not the individuals profiting from the sex trade.”
Previously, the decision as to whether or not to arrest and prosecute a girl for prostitution was among law enforcement officials. Discretion was exercised on a case-by-case basis. The move to raise the debate to the legislative level reflects the growing appreciation that teenage prostitution is an important issue that needs to be handled in a consistent and fair manner across the Commonwealth. CfJJ’s current campaign to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 has caused me to recognize that even older teenagers do not have the same capacity or resources as adults to make decisions in their own best interest. While the circumstances under which teenage girls become prostitutes may vary, the research is clear that adolescents lack the capacity for sound decision making that they will achieve as adults. Since prostitution inherently puts girls at risk, the law should err on the side of assuming that the girl was exploited by being forced into prostitution, or that the decision was made under aversive life circumstances, lacking full adult capacity. Regardless, these girls must be afforded an opportunity to create a different path for themselves with support and services.
Although I understand the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and being willing to suffer the repercussions, it is difficult for me to label any child who lands in the juvenile justice system for prostitution as a criminal. Growing up with my own struggles as an extremely fortunate teenager, I appreciate that it is not always easy to make the right decisions even when one has a stable, supportive home life. For those who are disadvantaged, without a stable support system, the options are narrowed and decisions may well not be sound. Prostitution, in particular, is a path that is taken when no good options exist, and when desperate girls are exploited and abused. This bill represents society’s capacity to insist that laws be enforced, while understanding that, up until a certain age, breaking the law reflects vulnerability and a need for help, not criminal intent.