New California Law Decriminalizes Prostitution for Minors

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Jerry Brown signed six separate bills into law that essentially treat those who've been involved in prostitution as victims, rather than criminals.

For the sex trafficking victims Beth Hassett and her team deal with every day, their past can weigh heavily on them.  And until now, so could their criminal records.

"We criminalize them and arrest them, we're just layering on a whole other trauma on top of the trauma of having been sexually assaulted repeatedly,” said Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, a support network for victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

She supports the package of bills Brown signed Monday, all of which add protections to victims of sex-trafficking.

The new bills include new measures that prohibit law enforcement from disclosing victims' names, and immunity for those 15 or younger having to testify from inside a physical courtroom.

"Our theory was if you can't consent to sex if you're under 18, you can't be a prostitute,” said state Senator Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

Mitchell authored perhaps the most controversial of the bills. Her legislation decriminalizes underage prostitution. If you're under 18, and are picked up by law enforcement for solicitation, you’re directed to child welfare services, not jail or juvenile hall.

"Housing them at juvenile hall does nothing to begin to rebuild their sense of self,” said Mitchell.

"They're victims of sexual assault, they've been preyed upon by adults and they should not be charged with something that's going to remain in their record for the rest of their lives,” said Hassett, who added that she believes it’s an issue that needed to be addressed.

According to the Human Sex Trafficking Resource Center, a national database that tracks reports of juveniles forced into trafficking, as of June of this year more than 2,100 calls have come in to law enforcement regarding sex trafficking of minors.

Senator Mitchell says it’s about time the state looks at victims as victims, not criminals.

"It's a form of child abuse, and it would never occur to us to put a victim, a victim as young as 13 or 14 in juvenile hall of they're a victim of child abuse,” said Mitchell.

Her bill, and the others that address trafficking are aimed at setting a new path for victims  -- one that steps around the criminal justice system.