The Minnesota Department of Health recently explored how the state’s Safe Harbor Law, which views sex-trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals, could be expanded to include adult victims of exploitation. Such a move could help victims out of the sex trade and into more productive lives — and ultimately reduce the number of sexually exploited individuals. All people who are coerced into sex acts for money or other goods should be extended compassion, not a criminal prosecution.
In “Expand Safe Harbor for sex trade victims” (Jan. 11), the Star Tribune Editorial Board recommended that the Legislature extend the Safe Harbor Law to adult victims. It also rightly pointed out that “while those who are sold for sex need more protections, those who sell or buy people for sex should still be subject to criminal prosecution.”
Such prosecutions play a vital role in bolstering Safe Harbor.
When originally passed in 2011, the Safe Harbor Law protected minors from criminal prosecution and provided housing and other services. (The law expanded in 2014 to also make those services available to victims up to the age of 24, though those young adults can still be criminally prosecuted.) But the Safe Harbor Law also took another key step: It increased penalties for those who facilitate the buying of sex and/or the buyers themselves, including raising the prostitution assessment.
These assessments, or penalty fees, are used to fund police enforcement and education, prosecution of sex crimes, and the very services legislated by Safe Harbor to help the victims.
The success of Safe Harbor depends upon increased assessments. Unfortunately, they all too often fall short of Minnesota statute, according to findings by WATCH, a court-monitoring group of which I am the director.
An April 2018 WATCH report (“Addressing the demand side of sex trafficking: Is the judicial system minimizing the seriousness of buying sex with women and underage girls?”) found that prostitution assessments are inconsistent, are well below statutory levels, or are not imposed at all, though Minnesota law says such assessments cannot be waived.
In the study, which followed 136 cases from the 2014 expansion of Safe Harbor through 2017 in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, WATCH found that only 35 percent of people convicted of buying sex with an underage girl were ordered to pay a prostitution assessment.
Just as shocking, the average assessment was $409; Minnesota law requires that assessments not be less than $750. Courts can make lower assessments only if the defendant is indigent or under financial duress. But 74 percent of defendants had the means to hire a private attorney.
In cases where defendants were found guilty of purchasing sex with an adult, the court ordered the payment of a prostitution assessment 58 percent of the time. The study also found that many discussions in these cases took place in the judge’s chamber, beyond the public eye.
Sentences imposed on buyers also tend to be lenient.
When courts sentence and assess following statutory requirements, they reflect not only the law, but what the law represents, which is our societal condemnation of buying sex, just as Safe Harbor reflects our collective compassion for victims.
Together, thorough prosecutions that follow Minnesota law and an expanded Safe Harbor could work toward the ultimate goal, reducing the number of exploited people in our state.
Nicholas P. Cichowicz is executive director of WATCH, a court-monitoring and judicial-policy nonprofit in Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties.