PHOENIX — A special task force is recommending tougher penalties on “johns” who patronize underage prostitutes. But several state lawmakers are not sure they can sell it to colleagues.
The panel, brought together by Gov. Jan Brewer, also wants to abolish the ability of customers to argue that they did not know the prostitute was a minor. Existing laws allow those who successfully make that claim to escape with as little as six months in jail.
Other proposals include:
- giving prosecutors more discretion to treat the teens as victims who need protection rather than criminals;
- mandate that anyone involved in sex trafficking be tested for sexually transmitted diseases;
- rolling out a public relations campaign ahead of big local sporting events like the Super Bowl, which tend to attract sex trafficking, to convince men that sex with minors is not acceptable.
Former state Attorney General Grant Woods, a member of the task force, got the panel to propose making it a crime for newspapers, magazines and even web sites to accept advertising for “adult” services without first getting government-issued identification from the buyer. There also would need to be ID, proof of being an adult and a consent form from anyone pictured in such an ad.
That information would be subject to subpoena by prosecutors.
Woods said he thinks such a law would withstand First Amendment challenges.
“It's a very minimal invasion into the privacy of the person placing the ad or the person accepting the ad,”' he said. “You have a compelling governmental interest here in that we know that a good portion of the child trafficking that's going on in the United States is going on through these sort of advertisements.”
Woods said even web sites that move offshore can be subject to Arizona laws, though subpoenaing the information becomes “more complicated.”
The move comes amid data that up to 300,000 underage girls are involved in child prostitution nationwide according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who is helping the Arizona task force, said the average age girls enter prostitution is 12 to 14. And he said this isn't a problem of foreigners, with 83 percent of minors who are sold for sex being U.S. citizens.
There is no comparable Arizona data.
Some proposals are administrative, like looking at the vulnerability of children in the welfare system to be lured into trafficking. But some, like increasing the penalties, would require legislative action. And based on prior history, the prospects for that may not be good.
Right now, someone who is a pimp for an underage prostitute can be sentenced to up to 27 years if the girl is younger than 15. The maximum penalty is 21 years for an older minor.
Last session Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, tried to get colleagues to boost the penalties against those who were pimping out teens age 15, 16 and 17. But Allen could not even get a hearing on what he considered fairly noncontroversial legislation.
Allen said he saw that legislation as kind of a test of the willingness of the Legislature to crack down on child prostitution. He said the failure of this “lesser step” convinces him that a more far-reaching plan to boost penalties against johns would go nowhere.
That does not address a separate problem: The penalty for having sex with a prostitute age 15, 16 or 17 is as little as six months in jail if prosecutors cannot prove that the customer knew the girl was a minor.
Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, a task force member, said that makes no sense.
“I just don't understand why we have a law that seemingly protects the demand side, or the johns, in this instance,” he said. “That's really, in my opinion, what it's designed to do.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, also on the task force, said what the “john” knew should be no more relevant than whether someone accused of drunk driving knew the alcohol content of the drinks consumed.
But he said changing that would require legislative action, and Coleman said any measure dealing with enhanced penalties could be a non-starter in the Legislature.
“I know that there are some who are hesitant to change the laws that we have,” he said. Coleman said that is why a public relations campaign aimed at potential customers would be a better bet.
“Real men don't buy girls,'' he said. “We need to work along those lines and just raise the awareness.”
Zoeller told task force members that's what his state did ahead of the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, an event he said that seems to attract those who traffic in teens and some fans looking for such entertainment.
So Zoeller said the focus was placed on reducing demand. Some of that, he said, involved use of football players, taking advantage of their macho image to get out a message about what is not acceptable.
“We joke about it and don't see it as buying another human being,” Zoeller said. And he said the trade will continue until men are convinced otherwise.
Zoeller said his office also worked with hotels to discourage them from renting out their rooms to likely prostitution rings. And he said most were willing to cooperate, quietly, albeit some for business reasons.
“When there was resistance to helping, there may have been an arrest that was a little more visible,” he said.
But Zoeller cautioned there has to be a limit on any PR campaign when game day finally comes around.
“You've got to be respectful they're having a big show here,” he told task force members. Zoeller said that means no volunteers with signs telling men not to have sex with teens.
“You've got to let them have their party,” Zoeller said.