This morning I tweeted a link to this article, using the webpage link button and copy and pasting it into a tweet. The piece, the core issue obscured by a crappy headline, explains that California has decided to decriminalise prostitution amongst minors (under 18 years old), in the spirit of seeing these children as victims rather than lawbreakers. The article, which concedes the legislation is well-intentioned, then articulates the view that will have unintended negative consequences. A useful article fleshing out further detail, whilst still acknowledging there is disagreement over the efficacy of the law, can be found here.
Now, it is worth just going through a few of the arguments here, in the spirit of defending oneself against the hysterical claims of some that I am a child-hating misogynist who wishes to lock up and give criminal records to the victims of child trafficking and sexual abuse – to my own mind, removing police intervention from this area is a regressive step which will place more children at risk of harm. Whilst some clearly think this makes me fair game for all sorts of calumny, and by extension any groups with which I am associated, nonetheless let me briefly set out the case as I see it.
Firstly, since, according the new law, soliciting is no longer an offence for which police can intervene with minors, so they can do nothing to ensure a vulnerable child on the streets can be removed and taken somewhere safe. Nothing. They might only stand aside as a child offers himself or herself for purchase and hope to be there when a customer comes calling. And I truly hope they are there when they do. But in reality, there will always be times when they are not. Whilst we absolutely agree that children in this position should be treated as victim rather than transgressor, we can also say that removing mechanisms to intervene in this situation is a regressive step. It leads to having more vulnerable children out on the streets, since fewer are actively taken off the streets. If those mechanisms exist elsewhere (and it is not clear that they do), then so much the better – but it is a valid criticism of the decriminalisation process until that becomes clear.
Secondly, the law change brings into being a situation in which a sex trafficker now has available a core group that are immune to legal intervention. For the trafficker, a 17-year-old becomes more profitable, because less prone to absence through legal intervention, than those above the age of 18. For the trafficker, the risk remains the same –get caught, time in jail – but s/he now has a greater incentive to seek out victims amongst the young. In other words, children might well become more vulnerable, because now more prone to the attentions of pimps and traffickers. Or as Attorney Nancy O’Malley puts it, “It just opens up the door for traffickers to use these kids to commit crimes and exploit them even worse.”
Finally, we might make a judgment that the presence of tools of legal intervention is simply preferable to there being none at all, however well-intentioned the reason for that might be. This is not to dissent from the idea that these children are victims; it is to reinforce the point that intervention is absolutely necessary because these children are absolutely worth that effort and care. The law can be used as a preface to punishment, sure, but it is also used as a tool to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable, and to ensure engagement with state services and support. Without a forceful legal intervention, even against the will of the child, it can become more difficult to guarantee, in a timely manner, that the child gets access to the health and welfare services they need, or (in the more immediate sense) the safe space they require.
We can absolutely agree that the consequences of this need to be better managed. It seems self-evident that victims of sex trafficking should have records cleared and full access to all health and welfare services. But if this is what concerns detractors – the recording consequence of legal intervention, this being the corollary of having laws which allow intervention – then it would make greater sense to consider how we change the nature of the mark it leaves, than to abandon the field – and the children in it – in the name of ensuring they keep a clean sheet.