Bill protecting older trafficked teens likely to pass, advocates say

A bill awaiting final passage at the legislature would treat 16 and 17-year-olds who have been prostituted as victims rather than criminals.

The bill would extend protections first given to those younger than 16 in a 2011 Safe Harbor law.

A victim-centered approach is more effective than treating them as juvenile delinquents, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

"Instead, what we're saying is 'We just want to help you' and we truly do and we're going to get you connected to services and we're going to help you along the way," Choi said.

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Ramsey County is one of a number of counties that stopped prosecuting underage victims of prostitution. Choi says more victim cooperation has helped bring stronger cases against traffickers who prey on underage victims.

"If you're at some point strong enough and willing to tell your story about what happened then we're going to be there with you too and we're going to protect you from that trafficker who has threatened you and actually committed acts of violence," Choi said.

The legislation also includes funding for safe shelter and supportive services for child prostitution victims, as well as training for law enforcement.

"If your first interaction with a victim is focused around helping them and not about gathering information about whether or not they're a delinquent or a criminal, they will be more apt to trust law enforcement," Choi said.

"Then also if we can get the help and services they need, they can see the situation they were in and how horrible it was and then they will participate in the prosecution."