In Judge Mary O’Donoghue’s courtroom in King’s County Family Court in Brooklyn, 16-year-old “Krystal Simmons,” with round cheeks, glasses, and a tight little ponytail, seems an unlikely defendant in a prostitution case. Her mother sits next to her, wincing as the undercover cop describes how he says he tricked Krystal and her friend into believing he was a john.
Defense lawyer Steven Bernstein: And then what did you say?
Vice cop #7334: I asked her how much to get my dick sucked.
Bernstein: “Dick sucked” or “blow job?” In your statement you said—
Cop: “Dick sucked.” I say the same thing every time. She said 40.
Bernstein: What else did you say?
Cop: I told her it was always my fantasy to have two girls together, you know—
Bernstein: And how long have you had this fantasy?
Cop: No, it’s just, it’s just what they tell us to say to get the other one to come over, you know.
Krystal later told the Voice that the police are lying, that she said absolutely nothing to a cop who exchanged phone numbers with her friend that night last summer. She added that sitting with her mother listening to that exchange was “beyond embarrassing.”
Courtroom scenes like this could soon be a thing of the past. Next week Democratic Assemblyman William Scarborough from Queens will propose legislation that could change the way law enforcement treats minors accused of prostitution. Instead of being arrested for criminal behavior, teenagers would be treated as victims of sexual abuse.
The bill was authored by Margaret Loftus of the Juvenile Justice Project, with the help of Kate Mullen, a 14-year Legal Aid veteran, and Rachel Lloyd of Girl’s Education and Mentoring Services. The premise is that minors can no more “consent” to prostitution than they can “consent” to sex with an adult. Therefore, child prostitutes are victims in need of psychological services and mentoring, not the trauma and humiliation of a criminal trial.
“This is not legalizing prostitution,” explains Lloyd. “There will always be a role for law enforcement—not all victims will seek help voluntarily. The way it’s set up now, girls are propositioned in the most vulgar way, arrested, and then later asked if they want [counseling] services. So a fourteen-year old is supposed to suddenly view the [cop] who talked obscenely to her as her savior? We want to change the way people think about sexually exploited youth.”
The three women believe that the bill, called “Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth,” would do just that. It would require cities to train police officers to respond differently when encountering sexually exploited kids. It would also require special emergency shelters (separate from the state-run detention centers) for victims who don’t have a safe home to go to.
Support for this bill represents a change for Assemblyman Scarborough, who last year supported a very different sort of child prostitution bill: one proposed by Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn under which minors “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” could be prosecuted and jailed. Scarborough says he has had a change of heart: “I found [Mayersohn’s] bill to be rather punitive in nature. After getting more deeply into the issue of child abuse and exploitation—that’s not the direction to take. So I’ve taken on this new response.”