Decriminalization of Child Prostitution in California: Should Other States Follow?

By: Sara Medina

Recently, California passed S.B. 1322 that prevents law enforcement officials from arresting sex workers under the age of eighteen for soliciting or engaging in prostitution.[1]  Decriminalizing commercial sex was designed to protect children of human trafficking from suffering the stigma of prostitution by providing counseling services.[2]  However, decriminalizing these sexual acts actually further exploits children.[3]  This law significantly limits law enforcement’s duties by preventing them from removing the child from a threatening environment, sends a message to the victimized children that their sex trafficker is in charge, and allows society to normalize child prostitution.[4]  Additionally, S.B. 1322 does not provide an age limit on how young a legalized prostitute can be, which means that even children as young as nine years old can sell their bodies for sex.[5]

Several states have passed legislation to decriminalize prostitution for minors – Illinois, Tennessee, Vermont, and Connecticut.[6]  While others, such as New York, Washington, and Massachusetts have laws that divert minors found in prostitution into services and treatment.[7]  Providing children with immunity from criminal charges will only incentivize the increased exploitation of minors.[8]  Children will spend more time on the streets and less time in jail, which will increase the cash flow for sex traffickers and allow them to exploit more vulnerable children.[9]  Sex traffickers will utilize decriminalization as a way to coach their girls to say that they are under eighteen, which will deflect any type of police investigation or criminal liability.[10]

Additionally, decriminalizing prostitution will exclude minors from seeking protection through the judicial system.[11]  Advocates for decriminalization argue that “children need services that are directed towards their dignity and rehabilitate them out of a life of selling sex,” but this should be accomplished outside of the juvenile justice system.[12]  It is imperative for children to have access to treatment and by removing the discretion of law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges from the process takes away one of the most effective means of rescuing children.[13]  If California was really serious about saving children, they would not have limited the duties of law enforcement, but would have “expand[ed] their options [to ensure that] children were treated as victims [and used] the justice system as a way to remove them from their enslavement.”[14]

The states advocating for decriminalization of prostitution for minors indicate that they do not want any child arrested for prostitution because they fear that arresting these minors will further traumatize them.[15]  However, what those states fail to realize is that decriminalization of child prostitution is not the answer.  Society should not subject children to prostitution, but rather we should address the factors that make girls so vulnerable.[16]  Additionally, we should use the juvenile justice system as a means to provide the tools needed for proper treatment and rehabilitation, so children can successfully reintegrate back into society.  Allowing an industry to continuously prey on children does not solve the problem of child prostitution, but actually condones it.

[1] See Tammy Bruce, Failing the Children of California, The Washington Times (Jan. 4, 2017)

[2] See S.B. No. 1322 §§ 647(b), 653.22 (a) (2016).

[3] See Bruce, supra note 1.  

[4] See id.

[5] See Mike Adams, California Just Decriminalized Child Prostitutes Beginning Jan. 1…”Legalization” Stirs Outrage, Natural News (Dec. 31, 2016)

[6] See Brenda Zurita, Children in Prostitution: What to Do?  The Beverly LaHaye Inst., Concerned Women For America (2012)

[7] See id.

[8] See id.

[9] See Adams, supra note 5.  

[10] See Zurita, supra note 6.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See Bruce, supra note 1.

[15] See Zurita, supra note 6.  

[16] See Rachel Lloyd, Legalizing Prostitution Leads to More Trafficking, N.Y. Times (Aug. 24, 2015), (highlighting the systemic factors for vulnerability as being “poverty, gender inequity, racism, classism, child sexual abuse, lack of educational and employment opportunities for women and girls globally”).