Last spring, in an airless room packed with lawyers and curious Kings County Family Court officials, “Krystal Simmons”—a 16-year-old with round cheeks, glasses, and a tight little ponytail—was the unlikely defendant in a prostitution case. Her mother sat next to her, wincing as the undercover cop described how he says he tricked Krystal, who was 15 at the time, 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 “blowjob?” 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? (giggles from spectators)
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’s case was recently dismissed, but during the trial she told the Voice the police were lying—that unlike her flirtatious friend, she said absolutely nothing to the smooth-looking undercover cop who pulled over to hit on the high schoolers buying junk food through the bulletproof corner store window following a block party in East New York and, moreover, that sitting with her mother listening to the “nasty talk” was “beyond embarrassing.”
But it’s not a question of innocence or guilt to child advocates, who note that minors can never consent to sex for hire; it’s the way suspects, who may or may not be victims of sexual exploitation, are trapped and later treated in the juvenile court system. Most would like to relegate X-rated police stings and courtroom scenes like the one she and her mother endured to the bad old days.
As it stands, if a grown man has sex with a 15-year-old it’s statutory rape, and if she gets caught she’ll likely find herself serving time, even though most johns rarely end up in jail. It’s far easier to trick a young sex worker standing on the corner than it is to catch a john who likes them young. A bill that seeks to make it easier for young prostitutes to get help without fear of prosecution has been bouncing around Albany for about a year, but insiders say that its most significant provision must be struck before it gets out of committee.
As it currently reads, the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act (sponsored by Democratic assemblymember William Scarborough of Queens) would change the state penal code so that minors accused of prostitution would be shielded from criminal prosecution by virtue of being minors. It would also require that police be trained in identifying and apprehending—in appropriate ways—kids they believe are working the streets. Cops would then escort them to special residential shelters, by force if necessary, to get counseling and other services, far out of reach of their pimps. It’s the part of the law that would shield them from prosecution that doesn’t stand a chance.
No one wants to use the word decriminalize, but that’s exactly what many advocates and some legislators view as a necessary step toward gaining the trust of girls controlled by ruthless entrepreneurs. “The average age of entry into prostitution is now 12 years old, with some children entering as young as nine,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Westchester, at a recent City Hall rally staged to spread awareness of the problem. “Who is the victim here? Currently the state’s response has been to prosecute sexually exploited youth as criminals. This approach is wrong, morally and practically.”
There are currently 28 children from New York City—26 girls and two transgender boys—in secure detention convicted of prostitution, but Mishi Faruqee of the Juvenile Justice Project (an advocacy group sponsored by the Correctional Association of New York) says the number of kids 16 and under who end up getting locked up is actually higher because many lie about their age. It’s easier for pimps to bail girls out of Rikers than to deal with the juvenile court system.
Awareness of child sex exploitation is gaining national attention, and Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, of New York, plans to introduce a federal bill that would treat johns who solicit minors as sexual predators. “The nine-year-old you heard about who was arrested,” she said at the rally, “believe me, it was not her choice. We need to shift the blame from the child to the demand side.” A federal law to fight sex traf-ficking was passed last year, and Maloney is partially responsible for the section mandating that minor victims of trafficking not be criminally prosecuted. A girl does not have to be from overseas to be the victim of trafficking— Brooklyn girls are routinely driven to Florida when it gets too cold for their pimps to generate enough business.
State lawmakers considered to be the most outspoken opponents of the Safe Harbor bill declined comment for this article, but advocates say some of these legislators think it would be even harder to curb the problem without criminal prosecution as leverage. Some of these lawmakers are also reluctant to be associated with a bill that would give political opponents the opportunity to reduce the issue to an alarming soundbite that makes constituents think they’re giving the go-ahead to hookers.
This resistance has led to a version of Safe Harbor that is far more likely to pass and leaves the state penal law intact. If passed, convicted minors will be sent to residential safe houses, and though they’d still get juvenile records, they’d at least be spared the further trauma of jail. Training for vice cops on how to apprehend suspects without compounding the psychological abuse the children have likely encountered will also remain as part of the revised bill.
Advocates cautiously call it a step in the right direction. “We’re not getting every
thing we want this year,” says Legal Aid vet Kate Mullin, “but next year we’ll try again.”
They may get more of what they want sooner than later if a broader and unrelated state bill on sex trafficking is passed that would “recognize that not everyone who engages in prostitution does so willingly,” says sponsor Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democratic assemblymember from the Bronx. It is his personal belief, he says, that “a 14-year-old, a very young person, cannot legally consent” to selling sex. But when you say the word “decriminalize” to him or his staff, the qualifying and backpedaling begin.
“We’ll see how it all rolls out,” says Rachel Lloyd, founder of the Girls’ Education and Mentoring Project (GEMS)—New York’s only nonprofit dedicated to helping girls as young as 12 years old get out of prostitution and start new lives. “Honestly, I’m all right with [the revised Scarborough bill] because I’m now recognizing how long this all takes. The important thing is the emergency housing. You have to have that in place first.”
Dominique Vickers is one of Lloyd’s many success stories. At the City Hall rally the petite, baby-faced 19-year-old told the audience in a voice so soft you had to move in to hear her that she’d been “in the life” for three years after struggling in an abusive home. She spoke for just a brief moment before finishing with a warm but abrupt thank you. Afterward she said she’d planned to talk more about her history but stopped because she didn’t want to start crying. She has a lot to look forward to now. Since finding refuge at GEMS, she has turned her life around with a job as an outreach coordinator at Lloyd’s not-for-profit, and next year she hopes to pursue a degree in education from Hunter College.