PHOENIX — A special task force is recommending tougher penalties on “johns” who patronize underage prostitutes.
But several state lawmakers are not sure they can sell it to their legislative colleagues.
The panel, brought together by Gov. Jan Brewer, also wants to abolish the ability of customers to argue that they did not know the prostitute was a minor. Existing laws allow those who successfully make that claim to escape with as little as six months in jail.
Other proposals include:
• Giving prosecutors more discretion to treat the teens as victims who need protection rather than criminals.
• Mandating anyone involved in sex trafficking be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
• Launching public relations campaigns ahead of big local sporting events like the Super Bowl to convince men that sex with minors is not acceptable.
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• Making it a crime for newspapers, magazines and even websites to accept advertising for “adult” services without first getting government-issued identification from the buyer. There also would need to be ID, proof of being an adult and a consent form from anyone pictured in such an ad.
That information would be subject to subpoena by prosecutors. Former Attorney General Grant Woods, a member of the task force who pushed the latter recommendation, said he thinks such a law would withstand First Amendment challenges.
“It’s a very minimal invasion into the privacy of the person placing the ad or the person accepting the ad,” he said. “You have a compelling governmental interest here in that we know that a good portion of the child trafficking that’s going on in the United States is going on through these sort of advertisements.”
And Woods said even websites that move offshore can be subject to Arizona laws, though subpoenaing the information becomes “more complicated.”
The move comes amid data that up to 300,000 underage girls are involved in child prostitution nationwide, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who is helping the Arizona task force, said the average age girls enter prostitution is 12 to 14. And he said this isn’t a problem of foreigners, with 83 percent of minors who are sold for sex being U.S. citizens.
Some proposals are administrative, like looking at the vulnerability of children in the welfare system to be lured into trafficking. But some, like increasing the penalties, would require legislative action. And based on prior history, the prospects for that may not be good.
Right now someone who is a pimp for an underage prostitute can be sentenced to up to 27 years if the girl is younger than 15. The maximum penalty is 21 years for an older minor.
During the last session, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, tried to get colleagues to boost the penalties against those who were pimping teens ages 15, 16 and 17. But Allen could not even get a hearing on what he considered fairly noncontroversial legislation.
Allen said he saw that legislation as kind of a test of the willingness of the Legislature to crack down on child prostitution. And the results of that test convince him stronger measures would go nowhere.
Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, a task force member, said, “I know that there are some who are hesitant to change the laws that we have,” which is why he believes a public-relations campaign aimed at potential customers would be a better bet.
“Real men don’t buy girls,” he said. “We need to work along those lines and just raise the awareness.”
But Zoeller, whose state initiated such a campaign ahead of the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, cautioned that there has to be a limit on any PR campaign when game day finally comes around.
“You’ve got to be respectful; they’re having a big show here,” he told task force members. Zoeller said that means no volunteers with signs telling men not to have sex with teens. “You’ve got to let them have their party,” Zoeller said.