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Steeper penalties for sexual exploitation of minors in New York state?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 14 May 2014 06:39 GMT
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A girl plays in a sprinkler in New York, on July 17, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New York State, which passed the nation’s first law treating sex-trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals, is to consider broader legislation that would increase punishment for those who buy sex, particularly from minors, and further protect trafficking victims.

The Trafficking Victims Protection & Justice Act (TVPJA) primarily would strengthen existing law by increasing criminal penalties against those who buy sex and the pimps who provide the victims.

“This is an important step in better protecting victims of trafficking and ensuring accountability in buyers and traffickers,” Kristen Berg, programme officer for trafficking at Equality Now, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A dozen other states so far have followed New York’s lead on providing so-called Safe Harbour laws decriminalizing sex-trafficked minors. “We’re hoping with the TVPJA, New York will continue to serve as a model,” said Berg, whose global non-profit organization works to protect the human rights of women and girls.

ENHANCING PROTECTION

Under current law, those convicted of buying sex from minors face a lower penalty than those convicted of statutory rape. The new law would impose the same penalties on those buying sex from minors as those convicted of statutory rape. It would also prevent those accused of having sex with minors from using the defense that they didn’t know the age of the child.

The new law would strengthen penalties against those who pimp minors and allow prosecutors to pursue wiretaps against them when there is probable cause to believe that the suspect is pimping children under the age of 18 for sex.

Current law allows wiretaps on pimps only when law enforcement officials can prove that the victims were coerced, which often difficult to establish with frightened children, or that the victim is under the age of 16.

The new law would also close some loopholes and make changes that enhance the protection of all sex trafficking victims.

Under current law, a trafficking victim convicted of prostitution can only have that conviction vacated after the fact by asserting that they were trafficked or compelled into prostitution. The new law would allow that affirmative defense to be used preemptively to avoid criminal prosecution.

The new law proposes to eliminate the term “prostitute” from New York Penal Law - the only instance in which the law identifies a person by the crime he or she allegedly has committed - and to replace it with “person for prostitution,” a term considered less stigmatizing for trafficking victims.

“For me, it’s a game-changer, taking prostitute out of the penal law,” said Lauren Hersh, director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families, a New York non-profit that serves victims of domestic violence and trafficking. 

“When you talk to survivors, one of the first things they will tell you is that the word is so incredibly stigmatizing. It indicates that there’s a choice, but for trafficking victims this is about ‘choicelessness,’” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MIRED IN POLITICS

The TVPJA came up before the New York State Legislature a year ago but failed to pass, primarily because “it got stuck in the Women’s Equality Act politics,” said New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who is sponsoring the bill in the assembly.

The 10-point Women’s Equality Act, to which the TVPJA was linked, became politically mired in the point concerning the protection of women’s reproductive rights. The act called for updating New York’s abortion law to align it with the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade, the federal law that gives women the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks and ensures that physicians cannot be prosecuted for providing abortion services.

Conservative members of the legislature balked at that provision, and the act was defeated, taking the TVPJA with it.

This time around the TVPJA is being proposed as stand-alone legislation in both the state assembly and in the senate. Neither body has passed a stand-alone version of the bill yet, but the legislature has until the end of its session on June 19 to act.

Equality Now and Sanctuary for Families are among the dozens of organizations in the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition that have launched a campaign this week to get the legislation passed.

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