It used to be that the penalties in Arizona for child prostitution involving a 15-year-old were far less severe than the same crime involving a victim a year younger.

With Gov. Jan Brewer‘s signing of House Bill 2454 on Tuesday, both crimes are now Class 2 felonies. It is also now harder to use a lack of knowledge of a victim’s true age as a defense.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican representing the Gilbert area, strengthens penalties for crimes related to human trafficking and is an outgrowth of the task force on the subject that Brewer set up last year.

Among the group’s recommendations was removing the statutory distinction between victims under age 15 and those 15 to 17.

The task force also suggested diverting minor victims from juvenile delinquency proceedings and directing them instead to child-welfare services.

“We are not looking to criminalize these children in any way,” said Cindy McCain, who co-chaired the task force.

“My goal is to remove the word prostitution out of this whole scenario because these kids are not prostitutes; they are victims.”

The nonprofit group Shared Hope International rates states’ human trafficking laws relating to minor victims each year, and its 2013 report gave Arizona a C.

The report mentioned the penalty discrepancy as a deficiency of Arizona’s laws and noted that if prosecutors could not prove the buyer had knowledge of the victim’s age, the court could order probation and as little as 90 days’ imprisonment for certain offenders.

“This is a good step forward for Arizona, and it’s timely, especially with the Super Bowl coming up,” said Christine Raino, policy counsel for Shared Hope. Prostitution is believed to be rampant around major sporting events.

The purpose of HB 2454 was “shoring up loopholes in the law and making sure the penalty matches the crime,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and a member of the governor’s new Human Trafficking Council. “Now the big task is to get courts to follow through on these laws.”

The bill also:

  • Adds a requirement that advertisements, including online ads, for escort services and massage therapists include a business license number.
  • Establishes a Human Trafficking Victims Assistance Fund, to be managed by the director of the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families.
  • Adds to the aggravating factors a judge can consider in sentencing that the defendant recruited or enticed the victim from a shelter serving runaway youth, foster children, homeless people or victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or sexual assault.
  • Adds child prostitution, sex trafficking and trafficking of people for forced labor or services to the list of crimes under the racketeering law; also allows anti-racketeering funds to be spent on programs benefiting victims of those crimes.
  • Establishes that women charged with prostitution who are victims of sex trafficking can use that fact in their defense.

Human trafficking has been getting more attention from law enforcement as knowledge about the hard-to-investigate crime spreads.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall sponsored the first training for area law enforcement in February. The office has stopped prosecuting minors for prostitution, recognizing that they are unable to consent.

“Our work is not done,” Brewer said at the signing ceremony. “We must make sure that the victimized and the vulnerable know where and how to seek help.”