Stopping Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is a $100 billion industry worldwide. Victims, many of whom are as young as 11-, 12- and 13-years old, face unspeakable horrors. They are abused mentally and physically, forced to take drugs, forbidden from going out in public and even denied food and water.

California is a top destination state for sex-trafficking victims and our big cities are major hubs for moving girls throughout the state and around the world. That’s why combating sex-trafficking is one of my top priorities.

We’ve recently taken significant steps forward to combat this heinous crime at the local, state and federal levels, and it’s important to take stock of the progress we’ve made and the work that remains.

Last year, Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act — a major piece of legislation that garnered unanimous support in the Senate. Working with Republican colleagues, I was able to include two important provisions to encourage the prosecution of buyers to decrease demand and stop the advertising of juvenile victims on the Internet. Addressing these two areas is key to reducing sex trafficking.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of child sex trafficking have increased eight-fold in just the past five years. High demand and the proliferation of Internet advertisements are the main reasons.

With just a few clicks, buyers are anonymously connected to victims. These trafficking ads are incredibly profitable — generating millions of dollars for websites like Backpage.com and others.

The first provision I drafted with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would help ensure buyers are held accountable for their actions and prosecuted. It makes buyers criminally liable for purchasing sex from trafficking victims, expands reporting on trafficking prosecutions and requires training for law enforcement officials on how to target and prosecute buyers.

The second provision I put together with Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) makes it a crime for a person, including the owner of a website, to knowingly advertise a commercial sex act with a minor. Website owners would be much less likely to turn a blind eye to trafficking ads if they could be prosecuted for them.

Since the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act was signed into law, I’ve pushed the Justice Department to use these new legal tools and will continue to do so.

The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles — Eileen Decker — has shown real leadership in this area, prosecuting several buyers in the past year. One buyer — a 59-year-old man — was sentenced to nearly five years in prison. He lied to federal investigators about his conduct with a 16-year-old girl he met, and later advertised, on Backpage.com.

Another area where we’ve seen progress is increased coordination between local, state and federal law enforcement.

Three weeks ago, there was a nationwide operation led by the FBI to arrest buyers and traffickers and rescue victims — Operation Cross Country.

That operation was very successful in the Bay Area. Nearly 40 local law enforcement organizations and victims’ service providers participated. Six underage victims and three adult victims were rescued. Fourteen traffickers and 83 buyers were arrested.

Law enforcement collaboration also led to the recent arrest of Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage.com, for various state felony offenses. The charges stem from Ferrer’s participation in profiting off the selling of young girls for sex on Backpage. California Attorney General Kamala Harris deserves a lot of credit for bringing these charges. In addition, Mr. Ferrer obstructed a Senate investigation into his company’s practices, opting to not comply with subpoena requests.

It’s also encouraging that San Francisco is taking steps to increase penalties for buyers.

The San Francisco Police Department is considering changing its protocols so all buyers arrested for purchasing sex will be booked in jail, rather than given citations at the scene. Citations are unlikely to deter these individuals from purchasing sex again, perpetuating the sky-high demand for victims.

This policy change would bring San Francisco in line with Alameda County, which, under the leadership of District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, has cracked down on demand and helped survivors.

I’ve worked with Nancy and Catholic Charities of the East Bay to address one of the biggest gaps in helping victims get their lives back: safe and stable housing. Without a roof over their heads, victims are much more likely to return to their traffickers.

A safe house for child victims of sex trafficking, Claire’s House, will open in 2017. It will have around a dozen beds — there aren’t currently any beds reserved for trafficking victims in San Francisco or the East Bay.

Survivors helped design the home to ensure it meets girls’ needs. They have also provided guidance on everything from program curricula to safety measures. Empowering survivors to help make progress on this issue is so important.

Lastly, more must be done for trafficking victims abroad. For example, Yazidi women in Syria and Iraq have been subjected to unspeakable sexual violence by ISIL. It has been reported that ISIL uses a variety of Internet websites and apps to advertise these women — just like traffickers in the United States. That’s why I am working on legislation to ensure ISIL terrorists can’t use social media platforms to sell girls for sex.

The bottom line is that thousands of young women are being sold every day for sex in the United States and around the world, and we have an obligation to end trafficking here and everywhere.