Defendants in Ramsey County juvenile sex-trafficking cases received far heftier sentences than in Hennepin County since 2012, according to a report released Thursday.
The report, conducted by the nonprofit court monitoring group WATCH, examined all 107 juvenile and adult trafficking cases filed under the state's prostitution and trafficking law in the two counties from January 2012 to August 2016. The group also wanted to determine the impact of the Safe Harbor law, which was passed in 2011 with the intention of ensuring that sexually exploited youths are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. The law, expanded two years ago, also increased criminal penalties against commercial sex abusers and customers and provided services for victims.
The report found that with cases involving juveniles, the average prison sentence in Ramsey County was 19 years, more than three times as long as the six-year average handed down in Hennepin County. In addition, fewer defendants in Hennepin County — in both juvenile and adult cases — received prison time as part of their sentence than did defendants in Ramsey County.
Ramsey County relies on the part of the statute that specifically makes sex trafficking a crime, while Hennepin County most often uses the part of the statute labeled "promotes prostitution," according to the report. Prosecutors must be able to prove sex trafficking in order to attach several aggravating factors to the charge.
"The problem with using the 'promotes prostitution' prong of the statute to charge trafficking cases is that the prosecutor is ultimately labeling the victim a prostitute, which undermines one of the goals of Safe Harbor," said WATCH Executive Director Amy Walsh Kern. "That goal is to treat the trafficked individuals like victims, not criminals. Therefore I think that it is particularly inappropriate to use the prostitution-related charges where the victim is a juvenile."
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Thursday that his office didn't have a chance to review the report in detail. He said he has consistently applauded Ramsey County Attorney John Choi for making sex-trafficking a priority. That said, county attorneys are not in a race against each other, he said.
In the period WATCH reviewed, Hennepin County's numbers are higher than Ramsey County in some categories, while Ramsey's are higher in others. Freeman pointed out that prosecutors in both counties charged nearly every sex-trafficking case brought to them and obtained a felony conviction at least 90 percent of the time.
Choi urged the public to consider that several factors not reflected in the data go into how cases are charged, prosecuted and sentenced.
Choi said differences in sentencing can be influenced by a defendant's criminal history and each judge's discretion, which prosecutors can't control. Ramsey County's longer sentences are a product of the county's priority in prosecuting sex-trafficking cases, he said, and many defendants' "significant" criminal records, which can tack more time onto a prison term.
"I've known for some time, certainly, that we're an outlier as it relates to the sentencing of our defendants who are trafficking," he said. "I'm comfortable being where [we are] at. We have insisted on severe consequences for those who have been convicted."
The 50-page report, "Where A Public Movement Meets the Criminal Justice System," also criticized both counties for resolving the vast majority of cases through plea bargain instead of trial. Hennepin County had a pattern of downward departures from the state sentencing guidelines in the trafficking sentences.
The report recommended that the trafficking law be amended to remove references to prostitution and refer to prohibited activities as sex trafficking. It advocates raising the age for a first-degree sex trafficking victim, currently under the age of 18, to 24 or younger.
Other recommendations included developing statewide training on sex trafficking for prosecutors and judges and examining judicial practices on downward departures and sentencing.
The report also includes interviews with law enforcement, prosecutors and other stakeholders in the anti-trafficking movement including a lawmaker, victim service providers, advocates and survivors of sex trafficking.
Walsh Kern acknowledged that both counties are succeeding at charging cases, but she's disappointed in the different sentencing practices. She understands trafficking cases are tough to bring to trial because victims can be unreliable and prosecutors may not want to put them through any more trauma.
"We have to ask if these sentences are as good as we can get," she said.
She found it interesting that the very same activity could be classified as prostitution and sex trafficking, she said. There is an assumption that prostitution involves consent while sex trafficking clearly has a victim, she said.
Freeman said he would work with WATCH in the Legislature to amend the language in the statute to eliminate any misconception on how the public should perceive women who have been trafficked. Walsh Kern agreed that statute needs to be changed, and "that we are on the edge of that change."
"There is a lot of public attention being made to this issue," she said. "The sentence is what serves as the deterrent."
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.