By Daylin Leach, Shea Rhodes and Sarah Robinson

This Monday, Jan. 11, is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. We would like to take this opportunity to update the public on Pennsylvania’s fight to eliminate this horrific crime.
The enslavement of people for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation has reached epidemic proportions.

According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Pennsylvania’s “Keystone” nature is uniquely attractive to traffickers, as it facilitates transportation to and from the northeastern United States.
Pennsylvania used to be one of the states least capable of holding traffickers accountable for their crimes and properly protecting their victims.

Over the past four years, we, along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, have worked to reform our Commonwealth’s human trafficking laws; Pennsylvania is now one of the most progressive states in terms of protecting, recovering, and rehabilitating victims of trafficking as well as targeting perpetrators.

For all we have accomplished, we still need to pass one important bill.

That’s legislation sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, that would bar anyone aged 18 and younger from being arrested, criminally charged, or prosecuted for allegations of prostitution and other crimes directly related to their sexual exploitation.

Moreover, the bill, now before the Senate Appropriations Committee, would make rehabilitative services available to these children without subjecting them to punishment or saddling them with a criminal record.

The plain fact is that children do not voluntarily decide to become prostitutes. In America, the average age at which a girl who enters prostitution is first exposed to prostitution is 13 years old.
It is preposterous to think children that young have weighed the career options and decided prostitution is really the best path for them. In virtually all cases, children are prostituted because they encounter a trafficker or “pimp” who forces them into prostitution.

The force used by traffickers includes everything from emotional manipulation, forced drug addiction, threats to the child or her family, and even beatings and sexual assault. The bottom line is that there is nothing voluntary about the child’s predicament.

Furthermore, under established state law, children cannot consent to sex. Legally, children are considered insufficiently mature to understand and manage the physical, emotional, and health consequences of a sexual relationship, even within the context of dating a schoolmate or friend from their neighborhood.

The idea that these children are somehow able to make a voluntary and intelligent decision to have sex with a dozen strangers each night out on the streets is absurd.

Moreover, given that the crime of prostitution requires a defendant to engage in commercial sex voluntarily, in the case of a minor the elements of the offense are not met, and the child cannot be guilty.

Yet all too often, children are arrested, incarcerated, prosecuted, and punished for crimes directly connected to their sexual exploitation.

They usually cannot afford attorneys and don’t have the resources to fight the charges which should never have been brought against them in the first place. These children are victims, not criminals.
Punishment, shame, and stigma are not what we should offer victims of violent crime.

Some have argued that while the children involved might well be victims, and might not be technically guilty of the alleged crimes, we should arrest and prosecute them as a way to keep them “safe” in juvenile detention facilities, require them to engage in rehabilitative services, and force them to testify against their traffickers.

While this instinct may be well-intentioned, it is highly inappropriate and simply dangerous to charge children with crimes of which we know they are not guilty because it serves our own purposes.
There is no other context in which we charge victims with crimes because we think it is good for them.

For example, there are many adult victims of domestic violence who refuse to testify, eschew offered services, and even return to their abuser. We do not charge those adult victims with crimes they did not commit in order to convince them to act otherwise. We certainly shouldn’t be doing this with our children.

The repeated sexual abuse of juveniles is one of most horrific crimes imaginable. We must stop revictimizing these traumatized children. It’s time to pass SB 851 so that we can begin to help these kids heal and give them a real chance at a normal life.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat, represents the 17th Senate District, which includes parts of Delaware and Montgomery counties. Shea Rhodes is the director of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Sarah Robinson is an extern with the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation

This op-ed was originally published by PennLive on January 11, 2016.