‘Unintended consequences’

Law intended to protect young victims may prevent intervention

Mike Ramsey and Ron Reed tend to find themselves on opposite sides of the legal scales. After all, Ramsey is Butte County’s district attorney, and Reed is a public defender who represents people Ramsey has accused of crimes—including youth.

When it comes to California Senate Bill 1322, however, their views align. That legislation, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-L.A.) and passed last year, precludes law enforcement from arresting a minor for prostitution. Only if an officer suspects the youth is in immediate danger or medical distress can he/she be detained; even then, the youth must be remanded to Children’s Services, not the criminal justice system.

On the surface, this bill may seem just. As a fact sheet advocating its passage states, California law had allowed for “criminalization of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) victims by charging them with crimes committed while they were victimized” and “detained in juvenile hall.”

Problem is, detention sometimes is necessary to get victims the help they need. Reed—as well as Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien and Det. Vic Lacey, a trafficking investigator—said youth in an open home (such as with a foster family) often return to the streets. Only when confined do many start to shake free from the grip of trafficking.

“It sounds counterintuitive to utilize juvenile hall as a tool, but [officials] would then intervene with those services that individual needs, which [the youth] themselves may not realize because of their age or situation,” O’Brien said. “That’s a hard thing for people to process—‘Well, you’re just arresting the victim’—but we’re trying to get help to the victim.”

While the law’s concept may be “well-meaning,” he added, supporters “don’t understand the unintended consequences, and I think those are important, because the unintended consequences can bring less help to people.”

Ramsey dismissed concerns about saddling victims with a criminal history. Courts seal juvenile records, he explained, and that step presupposes charges actually filed.

“No prosecutor’s going to do that; police officers aren’t doing that,” Ramsey said. “They just want a safe place for the child, to get services to the child, rather than have the child walk out [of] the foster care system and back on the streets and start doing it again.”

Reed supported that assertion: “In my experience, the District Attorney’s Office, the police, probation—everyone involved—looks at them as a victim. There’s no desire to give them a record, punish them in any way.”

By the same token, also in his experience—30 years of public practice—he said there’s no meaningful way to intervene without mandatory detention.

Deeming the bill’s effect “misguided,” Reed added: “At the risk of losing my status as a bleeding-heart-liberal defense attorney, I agree with Mike Ramsey.”