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Is an underage girl arrested for selling sex a criminal—or a victim of trafficking?

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Outraged activists want to send such girls to safe harbors, not jail. The officer arrested her and booked her as an adult. Despite evidence that B. Is a year-old girl selling sex on the streets a criminal? This question is now being asked around the nation, generating vigorous debate and concrete action.

In April, New York became the first state to enact a policy against prosecuting girls under age 18 for prostitution, with its groundbreaking Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act. The act also provides support and services to sexually exploited youth under Similarly, Connecticut, Illinois and Washington recently passed laws that decriminalize prostituted children.

The activists behind these laws all argue the same thing: that prostituted girls are victims of sex trafficking. Rarely do we think of U. Only this year, for the first time, did the U. State Department include this country in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

However, the federal directive has been slow to take hold on the state and local levels: Police officers across the country still arrest sexually exploited girls and treat them as criminals. And studies show there are plenty of girls out there to arrest. In fact, according to figures from the Bureau of Justice, a third of sex-trafficking allegations in the United States involved minors, mostly girls. The median age of entry into prostitution in the United States is shockingly young: 12 to 14 years old for girls.

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Despite these statistics, activists in this country have had to fight hard to get people to recognize and care about the situation. Yet the state of Georgia recently rejected a similar safe-harbor law that would have exempted minor girls from prosecution for prostitution.

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And who opposed it? The Georgia Christian Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Convention and other conservative organizations staged protests and letter-writing campaigns, claiming the law would legalize child prostitution.

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They argued that arresting girls was the best way to get them off the streets and out of the hands of pimps. The decision to prosecute these girls rather than provide a safe harbor only makes them more vulnerable, and more numerous. A study shows that girls aged 17 and under are sold for sex each month in Georgia, with 7, men paying for sex with adolescent females whether they know their age or not.

Meanwhile, as in Texas, the considerably older pimps and buyers almost always avoid arrest.

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Nonetheless, activists in Atlanta are continuing their fight to change the situation. The coalition sought to increase public awareness, reform the law and raise money for a treatment facility for girls coming out of commercial sexual exploitation—and they fulfilled all three goals.

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Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who took office inemerged as a courageous voice against the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. Not A Past. A grassroots initiative to combat commercial sexual exploitation of girls emerged in New York nearly a decade earlier.

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To raise awareness, GEMS produced a compelling film inVery Young Girlsfeaturing the stories of girls who were controlled and exploited by much-older pimps. The effort for the latter began with a case very similar to the Texas case of B. She was later convicted. Lloyd and Mayor Franklin, along with other activists around the country, have also taken on the website Craigslist, which has become a major venue for pimps to sell young girls.

InFranklin called on the site to remove selling underage girls. The website also promised to review each posting to this category. But many of the same selling young girls still appear, and Lloyd continues to apply pressure.

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The mostly white leaders these corporations thus profit from these race-stereotyped images of black men, and care little about the effects these images may have on communities. Then of course, there are the highly sexualized Bratz dolls marketed to girls.

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Other reasons for the increasing involvement of girls in commercial sexual exploitation are the soaring rates of child poverty in the U. In Atlanta, the s are even higher: 32 percent of youth under 18 live in poverty, with 18 percent living in extreme poverty. Similarly, in New York City, 38 percent of children in the Bronx and 34 percent of those in Brooklyn live in poverty.

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The spike in girls showing up before juvenile courts on charges of prostitution that was noticed by Judge Hickson in Atlanta occurred shortly after the substantial weakening of the social safety net in our country with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act. Girls are also propelled into the streets by high rates of physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Arresting sexually exploited girls for prostitution is an egregious form of blaming the victim. Rather than blaming the victims, advocates around the country are calling on governments to stop arresting these girls and instead provide them with the social services they need, reserving criminal prosecution for the perpetrators—the pimps and johns.

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But these laws depend on funding to provide services for girls. In New York, funding for services critical to the success of the safe-harbor law have not yet been allocated because of the budget deficit.

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Across the country, funding for victims of domestic sex trafficking of minors is very limited; fewer than 50 beds are available to address the needs of thechildren victimized, according to a recent statement by Rep. Carolyn Maloney DN. Ron Wyden D-Ore. The act will also attack the demand component of the problem by funding prevention programs aimed at potential buyers, and it will provide resources for law enforcement and prosecutors to go after pimps and buyers. Meanwhile, back in Texas, attorneys for B. Excerpted from the Summer issue of Ms.

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About Carrie N. Baker Carrie N. BakerJ. She is a contributing editor at Ms. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker msmagazine.

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