published Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Georgia Senate votes for tougher sex trafficking rules

ATLANTA — The Senate unanimously approved legislation on Tuesday that imposes higher fines and stiffer sentences on sex traffickers while also offering new treatment options to victims of the sex trade.

The 54-0 vote caps a four-year push by advocates to overhaul how the state treats people forced into prostitution — who previously often faced criminal charges themselves. The bill passed the House earlier this month and now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

The legislation calls for a 25-year minimum sentence for those convicted of using coercion to traffic someone under the age of 18, and slaps a minimum sentence of five years on those who pay for sex with a 16-year-old. People trying to have sex with someone even younger face at least 10 years behind bars.

"These are the children living on the streets of Atlanta who come here for food and end up in child trafficking," said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who sponsored the measure. "This says we want to take care of our children in the state of Georgia and clean up our act."

Unterman also praised grassroots groups, whom she credited with pushing the measure, with the help of civil rights groups and conservative lawmakers alike. Republican Attorney General Sam Olens made it one of his top priorities.

Among the activists who helped legislators cross the final hurdle was Keisha Head, a former prostitute who has championed the stricter penalties.

After running away from home at the age of 12, Head was introduced to a pimp at 16 through a childhood friend. She worked for him for years, suffering rapes, abuse and an attempted kidnapping. Each time she tried to get out, though, he threatened to harm her and her daughter.

"It was like a nightmare," said Head. "It was like I fell down a rabbit hole and never got out."

The Associated Press does not generally name victims of sexual assault, but Head has agreed for her name to be used to illustrate the dangers of child prostitution.

Even after leaving her pimp, Head continued as a prostitute for her own escort company. She finally came clean after serving a three-year prison sentence on unrelated charges. Now a married mother of three, she reaches out to young girls who are still in the business, and is part of the push for stricter penalties.

"It's time for us to stop treating our children as criminals and start treating them as victims because that is what they are," she said. "And it's time for the adults in this situation to be held accountable and pay for their crimes — not just get a slap on the wrist."

Kaffie McCullough, the campaign director of Future Not A Past, said the measure is meant to overhaul Georgia's sex trafficking rules, which went into effect in July 2007 as part of a larger immigration crackdown.

"It's still a step forward," McCullough said. "I'm a pragmatist, and not an idealist. It's better than what we have."

The measure includes protections that allow a prostituted child or adult to avoid criminal charges if they can prove they were coerced into it. Under the measure, coercion doesn't mean just physical abuse but also financial harm, destruction of immigration documents and drug use. The bill allows access to the state's victim fund for medical treatment, provided they cooperate with law enforcement.

The stiffer criminal penalties were added to win the votes of tough-on-crime conservatives, who helped defeat a similar measure last year amid fears that the language would unwittingly end up legalizing prostitution for children under 16.

"For too long, sex traffickers have received only a slap on the wrist for their unconscionable crimes," said Olens. "This bill gives law enforcement the tools they need to properly address this terrible abuse."

Advocates, meanwhile, are upset that minors could still be charged with prostitution under the law. But they say it's a strong and progressive step for Georgia.

"It's not all that we wanted but it will go a long way," said Stephanie Davis of Georgia Women for a Change. "And it goes much farther than what we currently have. It's not a panacea, but change is difficult in Georgia and we're happy for the incremental difference it will make."

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