Safe Harbor Laws are critical when it comes to trafficked youth being treated as survivors rather than criminals. It is only very recently that children have been protected at all by the law and are no longer being arrested when found being exploited by a trafficker. We must continue to ensure that no child be put in jail for being sold for sex and we must demand that they be treated with dignity and care.
We always state that each survivor’s story is different, but no matter the circumstances, the trafficker should be the one being held accountable, and never the child. There must be a focus on aftercare and opportunity, not imprisonment or punishment of the trafficked person. Safe Harbor Laws vary a great deal state by state, sometimes youth who are arrested are put into the juvenile justice system, treated as criminals, and not given fair opportunity to build a different future. But when the average age of a person trafficked for sex is between the ages of 14 and 18, safety must be ensured. Not only should youth who are trafficked by force, fraud, and coercion be free from criminalization, all youth and young adults affected by trafficking since a young age should be protected under the law.
What is a Safe Harbor Law?
A complete Safe Harbor Law (1) prevents minors (any child under 18) from being prosecuted for
prostitution and (2) directs juvenile sex trafficking victims to non-punitive specialized services. In some states, the age of protection is older in order to protect young adults who have been affected by trafficking since a young age.
What is commercial sexual exploitation?
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, “Minor Commercial Sexual Exploitation occurs when someone age 24 (some states this is 18) and under engages in commercial sexual activity. A commercial sexual activity occurs when anything of value or a promise of anything of value (e.g., money, drugs, food, shelter, rent, or higher status in a gang or group) is given to a person by any means in exchange for any type of sexual activity. A third party may or may not be involved.” Again, it is important to note that many states have a lower age limit for protection of age 18.
What states can we look to for guidance?
You may think we suggest Minnesota as a state for guidance because it’s our home state, but you’d be wrong. Minnesota has provided the framework for many state and federal policies protecting youth from being criminalized for sexual exploitation. The age of protection has been raised from 18 to 24, and the state has implemented a system model called “No Wrong Door,” where sexually exploited youth are offered housing, shelter, comprehensive services, and training.
Does my state have Safe Harbor Laws?
As of 2017, according to Shared Hope International, these states direct juvenile sex trafficking survivors to specialized services to assist in aftercare:
District of Columbia
Even fewer states protect minors from being criminalized for commercial sexual exploitation, they are:
District of Columbia
These states earned the worst grades (D) on their protections for children who are trafficked, according to Shared Hope International:
- Does state law specifically criminalize the exploitation of minors through sex trafficking and other offenses that relate to the commercial sexual exploitation of children?
- Does state law impose criminal penalties on sex buyers, who drive the commercial sex market?
- Does state law impose criminal penalties on those who traffic minors into commercial sex, including pimps, gang members, and family members?
- Does state law impose criminal penalties on those who facilitate the sale of minors including hotels, drivers, and brothel owners?
- Does state law prevent minors from being charged with a crime if they are engaged in commercial sex acts and provide a range of services and protections, such as emergency shelter, medical and psychological services, and life skills training?
- Does state law provide enough tools for Law Enforcement to complete the detailed investigations required for successful prosecutions?
Based on these factors, how did your state grade? If you’re not happy with your state’s grade, evaluate the questions above and identify areas for immediate improvement. Are you passing or do you need to take immediate action on behalf of youth who are survivors? We see Safe Harbor Laws rapidly changing as high-profile cases draw national attention and outrage. This fall we saw the case of Cyntoia Brown, who was trafficked at the age of 16, challenge the laws in states where youth are criminalized over being given opportunities for aftercare.
You can contact your state legislators to encourage them to increase the age for those being offered services from 18 to 24, ask for more beds and direct services for youth who have broken free, and for opportunity and meaningful aftercare. The National Conference of State Legislators offers sample language for bills and guidance on how to improve the laws where you live.And we must reiterate that if you or someone you know needs help, contact Polaris’ National Human Trafficking Hotline to find assistance close to you. The number to call is 1-888-373-7888 if you or someone you meet needs help.