Although discussion of trafficked youth has become prevalent in mainstream media and other venues, protection from prosecution for prostitution of domestic minors still remains elusive.
Legislation to protect these young people continues to face an uphill battle in many states — only about a dozen have succeeded in passing legislation addressing their needs. And in many instances, even where legislation has passed, protection is limited or curtailed in significant ways.
This is despite the fact that the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) now, for the first time, specifically calls on states to abandon the practice of prosecuting minors for prostitution. And yet California’s state Assembly recently struck a portion of a pending bill that would have eliminated prosecution of minors who are exploited. Not so in North Carolina.
This week, the state senate voted on a bill which, if enacted into law, would put North Carolina among a handful to prohibit the prosecution of exploited minors for prostitution consistent with the TVPA’s current stance on the issue. While about a dozen other states have led the way to provide measures that recognize and protect these minors in some capacity, currently only a few ban the prosecution of all minors under the age of 18 from prosecution for prostitution outright as North Carolina’s proposed legislation will do.
North Carolina’s comprehensive Safe Harbor Bill addresses many aspects of trafficking, including increased penalties for those who traffic and seek to purchase sex with a minor.
Awareness of trafficking and the need to address demand to purchase sex with minors has become more sophisticated in the past year or two but progress on other pieces of the solution remains slower than many realize. In North Carolina, much of the credit for this comprehensive legislation belongs to the support of the law enforcement and prosecution community, something that is not always present in other places. In fact, opposition from law enforcement can sometimes present the fatal blow for legislation meant to reframe the status of the young people who are exploited. For example, in New York -- the first state to pass a Safe Harbor measure protecting some youth from prosecution – some in law enforcement opposed the legislation for four years before it passed.
The North Carolina legislation is particularly significant because it protects all minors from prosecution even though it is one of two states where all juveniles over the age of 15 are prosecuted as adults.
The progress of North Carolina’s bill is promising evidence of a shift that is occurring across the country. It was, in fact, leadership by prosecutors that brought about such resounding support for this bill that passed without opposition.
Now the state House should approve the legislation and the governor should sign the bill swiftly and with great pride. Hopefully, other states currently considering Safe Harbor legislation will follow on the path started in New York five years ago and now continuing through North Carolina.
In doing so, states should retain the provisions of Safe Harbor legislation that are most meaningful, services for victims and protection from prosecution, because these provisions are critical in both practical and symbolic terms.
The author’s article discussing safe harbor legislation in detail is available at:
Megan Annitto is an Assistant Professor of Law at Charlotte School of Law where she teaches and researches in the areas of criminal procedure and juvenile justice. Her research interests include the development of the law relating to the role of age and youth in the criminal justice system, such as the effect of youth on legal questions of consent, waiver of rights, and juvenile justice reform. Her research discusses sex trafficking of domestic youth and their prosecution for prostitution, advocating for a more legally coherent and rational approach by courts and legislatures. Professor Annitto received her law degree and Master of Social Work from the Catholic University of America where she graduated magna cum laude. She received a B.A. from Boston College.