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To this day, Washington’s criminal justice system can arrest and charge young people under the age of 18 with the crime of prostitution under state law. At the same time, minors involved in the sex trade are victims of serious felonies1 under the very same state legal code and victims of a severe form of human trafficking under federal law.2 Although fewer and fewer jurisdictions have opted to arrest or charge youth for prostitution in recent years, the following contradiction has been enshrined in state law: a minor can both be recognized as a victim and criminalized for their victimization.
But that contradiction will soon be corrected. This year, thanks to the leadership of Representative Tina Orwall (33rd Dist.) and Senator Manka Dhingra (45th Dist.), the state legislature passed and the governor signed House Bill 1775. HB 1775 makes it so that the crime of prostitution will not apply to minors after 2024. Equally as important, it creates additional pathways to services and mandates data collection and other mechanisms to hold stakeholders accountable starting in 2021. HB 1775 is based on the premise that no minor can consent to a commercial sex act and therefore any minor involved in the sex trade is exploited and is a victim of trafficking under the law.
HB 1775 emblematizes the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of youth serving professionals, policy makers, concerned residents, and survivors of trafficking across Washington over the past decade and more. The Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ) is among this broad coalition and has spearheaded efforts to build and sustain a statewide, coordinated, collaborative, and victim/survivor centered response to the sex trafficking of youth in Washington since 2011. CCYJ supports regional, multi-disciplinary response networks that identify and serve trafficked youth through training and technical assistance, as well as collect data, convene partners, and otherwise serve as a hub for many stake-holding groups across the state.
Through our work, we have learned that as important as HB 1775 is, it will never help trafficked youth if we do not also continue doing the work on the ground. Criminal justice reform is not just about achieving a legislative victory, it is about fully integrating both the letter and spirit of the law for which we fought into our daily work. At its core, HB 1775 says that the criminal justice system is not the appropriate entity to respond to sex trafficked youth. This is a premise with which we could not agree more. However, our task does not end at achieving legal recognition of this premise. Our task will end when we have built the best alternative response — one that addresses all aspects of trafficked youths’ health, safety, and well-being.
This response must also address all trafficked youth. We often focus on girls/young women who are trafficked by a third party exploiter (commonly referred to as a “pimp”). Available research and experience from the field demonstrates that young people of all genders are trafficked and often in ways that do not involve a third party exploiter. Youth experiencing homelessness who trade sex acts in a two-way exchange for items they need to survive, for example, are victims of trafficking under the law.
Additionally, youth of color3 and LGBTQ+ youth4 are likely trafficked at disproportionate rates. We will betray the spirit of HB 1775 if inclusivity is not a metric for measuring the success of our reform efforts.
Supported by CCYJ, Washington has laid the groundwork for the non-criminal response to sex trafficked youth called for by HB 1775. We have made great progress and now have a statutory underpinning for our work, but we cannot relent. Budget cuts and resource shortages caused by the pandemic-driven economic crisis will not only challenge our ability to serve young people, they will also create conditions that promote entry into the sex trade — poverty, housing instability, and food insecurity.5 Changing the law was an important win, but providing inclusive, comprehensive, and trauma-informed services as well as meeting basic needs are what is needed for real reform.
Some ways to get involved:
- Consider supporting organizations that serve youth experiencing homelessness, especially those serving BIPOC and LGBTQ+ young people. While these organizations may not always brand themselves as an anti-trafficking organization, they serve populations disproportionately impacted by trafficking.
- Voice your support for policies that advocate for youth, family, and social services at the local, state, and federal level.
- Support CCYJ’s efforts to build and sustain a statewide, collaborative, coordinated, and victim/survivor centered response to the sex trafficking of young people.
1. See, e.g., Commercial Sexual Abuse of a Minor, RCW 9.68A.100; Rape of a Child, RCW 9A.44.079
2. See 22 U.S. Code § 7102
3. See, e.g., Cheryl Nelson Butler. 2015. The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking, pp. 1481-82. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Law Review [Accessed October 20, 2020]; available at: http://www.westcoastcc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Butler_10.17.16.pdf
4. See, e.g., IOM (Institute of Medicine) and NRC (National Research Council). 2013. Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States, ch. 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [Accessed October 20, 2020]; available at https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/243838.pdf;
5. See, e.g., IOM (Institute of Medicine) and NRC (National Research Council). 2013. Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States, ch. 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [Accessed October 20, 2020]; available at https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/243838.pdf; UNICEF USA. 2017. Food Access and Child Trafficking. [Accessed October 20, 2020].