Legislation would decriminalize prostitutes younger than 18 and instead treat them as "sexually exploited youths."
A little-noticed provision embedded in a legislative budget bill would trigger a profound change in how Minnesota treats young prostitutes.
A change to reclassify underage prostitutes as "sexually exploited youths" would place Minnesota near the front of a national movement; only four other states have enacted similar measures.
The change, part of the House's $1 billion-plus bill that funds public safety and the judiciary, is headed for a conference committee to reconcile its differences with the Senate, possibly as soon as this week.
"We've gotten strong bipartisan support from both houses, so we're hoping it's time for the state to stand up and say it's time to change the law," said Jeff Bauer, public policy director for the Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of children. "People have come to believe we need a response to the growing epidemic of child sex trafficking."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has estimated that about 100,000 American children, with an average age between 12 and 14, are drawn into prostitution each year.
In Minnesota, a national study sponsored by the Women's Funding Network found that 124 girls were "exploited for prostitution," in the study's words, last August. That represented a 55 percent increase from six months earlier.
Advocates of the Safe Harbor law say it is needed to eliminate what amounts to a Catch-22 in state law: Juvenile prostitutes can be simultaneously considered as juvenile delinquents to be criminally prosecuted or a child in need of protective services.
The bill, which expands the definition of such children, is intended to prevent them from falling through the cracks of the court system. It would triple the fines for convicted prostitutes' customers, with the increased revenue dedicated to the arrest and prosecution of "johns."
Similar laws are on the books in New York, Connecticut, Washington and Illinois and are being considered for adoption in Texas and California.
"People are looking to Minnesota to see what happens here," Bauer said. The bill comes on the heels of a two-year-old law that strengthened the state's sex-trafficking statutes. The state task force that oversees that law has endorsed the new bill.
The concept behind the bill got a boost in February when prosecutors from the Twin Cities area announced they would no longer prosecute juveniles participating in prostitution.
If enacted, the law would not take effect until 2014, allowing the state's other county officials time to ensure that programs to help sexually exploited youth are fully in place.
"As wonderful as what the prosecutors did, by saying they could do something about this problem now, every county is different and we need to say statewide how we view these exploited children," Bauer said.
The measure is not in the Senate version of the bill, although Bauer said several senators from both parties have agreed to sponsor a stand-alone bill.
Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973