SLO County prosecutors to view prostitutes as victims, not criminals

A woman being charged with prostitution is led out of a motel room en route to San Luis Obispo County Jail during a sting in September 2013.
A woman being charged with prostitution is led out of a motel room en route to San Luis Obispo County Jail during a sting in September 2013.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office is changing the way it prosecutes the sex trade industry, viewing prostitutes as victims of exploitation or forced labor rather than as criminals.

The change in approach acknowledges that prostitution and human trafficking are crimes far more complex than robbery and assault, which are often sourced to a deeper pattern of abuse.

In coordination with the shift, the District Attorney’s Office is heading a human trafficking task force — still in early planning stages — that aims to gather resources for victims of abuse and lead them away from their abusers and into treatment programs, counseling or housing.

“If you look back 20 to 30 years ago (at crimes) like domestic violence, that was largely accepted. People just didn’t talk about it,” said Debra Vallely, director of the District Attorney’s Office’s Victim and Witness Assistance Services division. “I see human trafficking the same way — these victims have been abused.”

According to a 2013 report by the California Child Welfare Council, the average age of entry into the commercial sex trade is 12.

The new Human Trafficking Task Force is taking that factor into consideration to educate police officers on the topic and empower victims to effectively leave their situation.

While resources for certain drug offenders have increased across the state — such as voter-approved drug courts that require defendants to complete treatment programs and meet other requirements in lieu of a criminal conviction — no such courts exist for those facing prostitution charges.

Vallely said the District Attorney’s Office has a new goal of linking the sexually exploited to similar resources instead of lengthening their criminal records.

“This is clearly not a black-and-white issue,” Vallely said. “We want to give the victim a sense that somebody is listening.”

Similar task forces have recently been organized in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Mike Schwartz, special assistant district attorney for Ventura County, said that county’s task force began last year and is still in the organizational stages.

He said law enforcement agencies there will be participating in training from state and federal agencies to identify signs of victimization.

“We have not seen an impact on the number of (prostitution) arrests — yet — but it’s an issue we’re much more aware of now,” Schwartz said.

The local task force has roots in the tenure of former District Attorney Gerry Shea but has come to fruition under District Attorney Dan Dow, who regularly worked sex crime cases as a prosecutor before taking charge of the office in 2014.

Dow said Vallely was instrumental in organizing the local human trafficking task force, after initially creating a subcommittee to solely assist trafficking victims as part of a domestic violence task force.

Formed out of that subcommittee about three months ago, the task force initially focused on complying with a recent law that requires posted public notices at certain establishments — including places that sell alcohol, adult-oriented businesses, train and bus stations, and urgent care centers — listing resources available to potential victims of trafficking crimes.

The new mindset is significant in San Luis Obispo County, where large-scale prostitution stings have been common.

In September 2013, the San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach police departments coordinated a three-day undercover operation at a San Luis Obispo motel that resulted in the arrests of 13 men and 10 women — most for misdemeanor soliciting or engaging in prostitution.

About a year later, in October 2014, the same three agencies arrested 37 people in another three-day operation.

While pimping and human trafficking are felony charges, both engaging in and soliciting prostitution are misdemeanors in California.

According to data from the District Attorney’s Office, between Jan. 1, 2014, and March 12, 2015, the county convicted 13 people for engaging in prostitution and 14 for soliciting prostitution, all misdemeanors. One person was convicted of felony pimping. Two human trafficking cases are pending, and two federal human trafficking indictments resulted from local investigations.

Dow did not say whether his office will encourage future undercover prostitution stings by local police departments, but he did say the traditional police practice of arresting suspected prostitutes and releasing their booking photos to the news media is not appropriate.

“It assumes that the person is a criminal when in countless cases they have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation,” Dow wrote in an email to The Tribune. “We need to change the language used to discuss the problem.”

For example, the District Attorney’s Office will no longer use the term “child prostitutes” because it implies they chose to sell their bodies, Dow wrote. Instead, the office will use “victims of trafficking” or “victims of sexual slavery.”

Those purchasing sex will continue to be prosecuted and will now be referred to as “abusers” or “traffickers” because the traditional term “john” has a humanizing effect, Dow wrote.

But that does not mean that prosecutors have an across-the-board directive to not file charges against someone arrested for prostitution.

In some cases, especially those involving prostitutes younger than 18, the only way to get a trafficking victim into the system where they can get help is to charge them with a crime.

But the District Attorney’s Office will consider factors on a case-by-case basis before filing any charges, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said.

Local police departments did not offer any specifics on how the new policy may affect future operations.

Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali wrote in an email Friday that his department will continue to enforce prostitution laws within the city.

“We are sensitive to the plight of human trafficking and are open to hearing the focus of the (task force),” Annibali wrote.

Aside from sex crimes, the task force will also focus on labor trafficking.

“It’s one of the most underreported crimes. It’s more insidious and harder to find,” Vallely said. “You might see and not even think about it unless you’re looking for it.”

Dow said prosecuting labor trafficking cases is also especially difficult because many victims

are afraid to go to authorities out of fear of being deported.

A year from now, Cunningham said, the measure of the success of the task force will be a reduction in prostitution convictions, more police officers who are more equipped to identify victims of trafficking, more funding and resources to help victims break free from prostitution, and better local data collection.

“It may be ambitious,” Cunningham said, “but if you’re not ambitious, you don’t gain anything.”

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