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State needs to pass safe harbor bill to protect sex trafficking victims

Children cannot consent.

That simple concept is at the root of a new bipartisan push to create a “safe harbor” to put into state law that any child under the age of 18 will not be prosecuted if they come forward as victims of sex trafficking and report their abusers.

The bipartisan measure is co-authored by State Senator Jesse James of Altoona and is similar to those already on the books in 30 other states and attempts to shift the focus from the law punishing children who are being exploited and sexually abused, to the adults who are doing the abuse. Cosponsors of the measure include both Republican and Democratic politicians representing rural and urban areas.

“We need to treat these kids as sexual assault victims,” James is quoted as saying in a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Otherwise we are feeding the narrative of the sex trafficker that they are the only ones who can protect them.”

James speaks from experience with decades of service in law enforcement before going into politics. Sex trafficking is a very real concern with reported cases in all 72 Wisconsin counties from the rural northwoods to the urban southeastern corner of the state. Nationwide, the average age of a child victim is 12-14 years old.

Under current state law, underage individuals — by definition, children — could face prostitution charges from overzealous prosecutors looking to pad their criminal prosecution records for political gain.

The idea that elementary and middle-school-aged children should be held responsible for the heinous acts that adults commit upon them is obscene. Rather than seeking to punish the victims of sex trafficking and child prostitution, the goal should be to get these children access to services and the support they need to recover from the trauma and abuse suffered.

Voters should be asking why it has been such an uphill struggle to get this law passed. The bill was first introduced in 2017 and has failed to be approved by the full legislature.

Opponents of similar measures in other states have portrayed these types of laws as legalizing child prostitution. This argument is nonsense. This measure and others like it around the country, put the burden of the criminal act on adults committing assaults on children rather than continuing the long history of victim-blaming when it comes to sex crimes.

Sex trafficking, like other evils, thrives on the willful inaction of otherwise good people. It is time to give the victims of sex trafficking a voice without fear of legal punishment. It is time to end institutionalized victimblaming and go after the scum that run and keep the sex trafficking industry going.