To North Carolina’s shame, our state ranks in the top 10 (number eight) for the sex trafficking of children. This form of prostitution is nothing more than systematic rape for profit. Behind every sale of a child for sex is the threat of violence or actual violence perpetrated against a minor.
Recent studies have shown that within 48 hours of running away from home, one in three children is involved in prostitution. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, $32 billion a year is made on sex trafficking, making it the second fastest growing crime segment, just behind the trafficking of narcotics.
New legislation was recently introduced in the North Carolina Senate to take our state off this top 10 list of shame and, hopefully, move us to the bottom. The proposed law attacks, first and foremost, the prime movers in sex trafficking of minors – the pimps. It jacks up punishment as high as a class B1 felony, sending them to jail for many, many years. But it does not stop there.
The proposed legislation is actually a comprehensive “safe harbor” law that goes after the sex trafficking of children in every way possible. The excuse of consent on the part of the child is not a defense to prosecution, nor a mistake in the age of the minor. Besides throwing the pimps in jail, the law moves to seize their property and illicit profits. A law already passed by the Senate turns these sex traffickers into sex offenders who are required to register as such when they complete their lengthy sentences.
The purchasers of sex, aka “johns,” are not overlooked either. When this legislation becomes law, anyone purchasing sex from a child will be guilty of at least a class C felony. The punishment goes as high as a class B2 felony if the crime is committed within 1,000 feet of a school. Additionally, the law allows for the impounding of a john’s automobile and the levying of a $500 fee for its return after conviction with the money deposited into a victim compensation fund.
The most forward thinking part of the bill involves how these abused children are treated. Under current law, minors arrested on prostitution charges are placed in custody and treated like any other juvenile offender. If the minor is at least 16 years old, she is treated like an adult criminal.
The new legislation changes everything. It makes minors immune from prosecution. Instead, they are treated as victims and are subject to temporary protective custody. Law enforcement is required to immediately report an allegation of minor sex trafficking to the Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) in the county in which the child resides. DSS is then required to commence an initial investigation into child abuse or child neglect within 24 hours.
This new law offers real hope for children caught up in the world of sex trafficking by treating them as victims and rescuing them from a living hell of abuse and degradation. It also metes out significant punishment to both pimps and johns who drive this train of rape and violence. It is past time that North Carolina was serious about ridding our state of the scourge of child prostitution. The new safe harbor legislation gives us a chance to take a bite out of this crime and get our state off the list of shame.
Thom Goolsby is a state senator, practicing attorney and law professor. He is a chairman of the Senate Judiciary 1 and Justice and Public Safety Committees. He is also a primary sponsor of this legislation.