Instead of arresting children who are bought and sold for sex on prostitution-related charges, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has launched a new program for juveniles in Compton and Sylmar that seeks to help them get out of the life.
The First Step Program, will have a dedicated team of prosecutors, law enforcement officers, children’s services providers and victim’s advocacy groups identify children who have been trafficked for sex.
Instead of being arrested and sent through the juvenile justice system, these children will be brought into a 10 week program that offers mental health services, substance abuse treatment, educational programs and shelter.
“We in law enforcement mostly ignored the underlying issues,” said District Attorney Jackie Lacey at a press conference to announce the program. “Fortunately we are changing the way we view these crimes. We believe that minors that engage in sex for pay are victims not criminals. We believe we should help these children, not detain them.”
At the press conference, Lacey was flanked by interim Los Angeles County Sheriff John Scott, high ranking members of the Los Angeles Police Department and representatives from victim advocacy groups Saving Innocence, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), Valley Trauma Center as well as the YWCA.
The program will be rolled out in Sylmar and Compton due to the high number of children arrested in those areas. Minors diverted to the program must agree to participate and when they complete it, they will not have a record of arrest. Although the district attorney’s office would like for the victims to cooperate with law enforcement so they can arrest pimps and Johns, it will not be required.
“We hope to save children’s lives,” said Lacey. “And also identify and prosecute the traffickers who exploit these children.”
The news conference capped a recent series of positive steps being taken at the state and local level to combat sex trafficking. The City of Los Angeles will begin posting a hotline number for victims in establishments like bars and emergency rooms, with Los Angeles County soon following suit. Four bills related to sex trafficking soon will be introduced in the state legislature; they call for stiffer penalties for Johns who solicit children for sex, enhancing penalties for gang members involved in trafficking and to expand wiretap authorization for people suspected of human trafficking.
In addition, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to fund CAST for a pilot program to increase services for young victims. And recently, a community based service provider, Restoration Diversion Services, celebrated its grand opening to help victims along Long Beach Boulevard in Compton receive counseling and GED certification.
“We are seeing an unprecedented level of cooperation among leaders in California and Los Angeles to combat the issue of human trafficking,” said Kay Buck, CEO of CAST. “It is exciting and reassuring to see this much commitment toward helping our most vulnerable victims in society get out of a life of being exploited by modern-slavery.”
Added Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, “We must bring an end to the sexual exploitation of children that is happening everyday on our streets. We are sending a message loud and clear to the victims that we are here to help. We are also determined to bring severe punishment to the pimps and Johns that perpetrate these heinous crimes.”
For a look at a one-on-one interview with District Attorney Jackie Lacey see the video below: