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SD Supervisors To Explore Stronger Penalties for Human Trafficking

To combat the growth of child prostitution in San Diego County, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to explore laws to strengthen penalties for human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation crimes.

The prostitution of girls under the age of 16 is on the rise because of the Internet and the growing involvement of street gangs with pimping, representatives of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, District Attorney's Office and San Diego and National City police departments said in a presentation at today's board meeting.

The supervisors agreed to direct the Chief Administrative Office to include proposals for laws that would increase sentences for pimping, especially of minors, in its 2011 legislative program.

Current maximum sentences are eight years for pimping involving someone under 16 and six years for pimping an adult in California. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said those sentences are not tough enough.

"We tend to think of prostitution as a victimless crime, that it's not that bad because it's between two consenting adults," she said. "But that's not what's going on here. This is taking young girls who are already vulnerable or troubled and enslaving them into this lifestyle. These girls are victims of physical and mental abuses committed by pimps."

San Diego ranks eighth nationwide in incidences of children involved with prostitution and pimping, according to police. Jacob said that statistic pushed her to bring the issue to her colleagues' attention.

"When I heard that we're above Las Vegas, I knew we needed to address it," she said.

San Diego police Detective Chappie Hunter detailed the abuses prostitutes suffer, usually at the hands of their handlers, and described the challenges in catching and prosecuting pimps for their human trafficking crimes.

He said pimps lure in prostitutes by pretending to be in love with them and promising money, fancy clothes and cars, or kidnap children and force them into sex work. Prostitutes are abused, forced to work 24 hours a day and sometimes tattooed with pimps' names as a form of branding, Hunter said.

"These girls are mentally brutalized day in and day out, and are told that if they run into law enforcement, they absolutely cannot tell on their pimps," Hunter said.

The Internet makes it easier for pimps to find and recruit children and to sell sex, Hunter said.

Although the Craigslist website recently shut down its adult services section, where many prostitutes were advertised, that section is still available in Tijuana, and San Diego pimps use it to sell their prostitutes, he said.

Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means told the Board of Supervisors that she has seen an increase in child prostitutes who come from upper-class homes, and who were either kidnapped or lured in by pimps.

"We're seeing girls from every walk of life, from Coronado and Del Mar, not just lower-income girls," she said. "Girls can be sucked into this cycle of victimization no matter how strong their family life is at home."

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told the Board of Supervisors that the number of prostitution cases her office handles has "more than doubled annually since 2004."

Supervisor Pam Slater-Price agreed that prostitution is an issue the county needs to address.

"It's a huge problem, and I think time is past due to show a concerted effort to make something happen," Slater-Price said. "Once a victim has had this happen to them, it stays with them for the rest of their life."

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