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End in Sight for Sex Trafficking

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To our state’s shame, North Carolina ranks number eight in the nation for sex trafficking. Criminologists list many different reasons for this fact, including interstate highways bisecting the state, a large transient military population, a high rate of tourism and lax laws regarding prostitution, solicitation and pimping.

As of October 1, thanks to the recent long session of the General Assembly, our lax laws will change. North Carolina will become the toughest state in the union on pimps and johns. We will also become the most compassionate state in dealing with prostitutes who are often minors and victims of sex trafficking.

The new law is entitled “An Act to Create a Safe Harbor for Victims of Human [Sex] Trafficking and for Prostituted Minors.” The legislation was set up to specifically hammer pimps with severe felony criminal punishments, starting with an initial conviction.

Johns are treated only slightly better. The first-time offender will face a class one misdemeanor punishment and then a class H felony for a second or subsequent offense. Just soliciting a minor for the purpose of prostitution is a class G felony. Actually patronizing a minor prostitute is a class F felony. Excuses such as “mistake of age” or “consent of the minor” are not defenses to prosecution. If the prostitute is “severely or profoundly mentally disabled,” the john will face a class D felony. This is hard time.

However, the legislation is not just about punishing offenders. The heart of the law is its “safe harbor” provisions. It recognizes that prostitution is first and foremost about the victimization of women by pimps and johns. This forward thinking legislation offers prostitutes a “conditional discharge” (deferred prosecution) upon a first offense. There are strings attached:  mandated drug testing, vocational assessment and counseling. The Court can impose additional requirements, such as attending or residing in a support facility, reporting to social services for assistance and undergoing frequent drug screens.

An expunction section allows a former prostitute to excise her record of a dismissed charge. The new legislation also sets up a process for motions to vacate past prostitution convictions for sex trafficking victims. This provision will allow these women to get a fresh start in life.

Although the bill was introduced earlier in the session, it did not get passed until the last week. The biggest sticking point was the safe harbor provision for minor victims of sex trafficking. Advocates fought hard and finally convinced the North Carolina House and Senate to try something revolutionary for our state.

Under the new law, minors cannot be arrested for prostitution. They are given immunity from prosecution. These girls will now be treated as the victims that they always have been. When they are suspected of prostitution, they will be detained by law enforcement and taken into temporary custody as an undisciplined juvenile. Law enforcement will immediately report the situation to the Director of the local Department of Social Services who will be required by law to commence an initial investigation into child abuse or neglect within 24 hours.

For far too long our state has turned a blind eye to prostitution and sex trafficking. To our great shame this neglect has landed the Tar Heel State on the top 10 list for sex trafficking. It is the great hope of all the people who worked so hard on this legislation that North Carolina will soon come off this list.

Currently, police departments are gearing up with training to enforce this law and prosecutors are learning how the legislation works so they can obtain convictions in court. A new and improved Human Trafficking Commission is being formed. The commission’s primary job will be to tweak and improve this legislation in the coming years. We now have a real chance to make sex trafficking a thing of the past in North Carolina!

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Thom Goolsby is a state senator, practicing attorney and law professor. He was the primary sponsor of both anti-sex trafficking bills passed this past session.

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