New California laws aimed at helping young prostitutes


"This is absolute urban slavery," said Jennifer Kohrell, a detective with the San Bernardino Police Department. "This is not just some person who made the free choice to go out and sell herself. These are young children. These are kids.

The passage of Proposition 35 allows prosecutors to not only go after pimps as human traffickers, but also requires them to register as sex offenders, increasing prison terms and levying fines against them to help fund services for victims of sexual exploitation.

According to a report released by the California attorney general, gangs are increasingly shifting from the sale of guns and drugs to girls and women, some even putting aside traditional rivalries to work together in commercial sex rings.

"You can sell a girl many times over, where as you can only sell drugs maybe one or two times," said Lesford Duncan, the Los Angeles County coordinator for the non-profit California Against Slavery.

There are now nine regional task forces throughout the state to crack down on human trafficking. Since human trafficking was made a felony in California in 2001, arrests and convictions have been steadily increasing.

Kohrell is one of the people going after pimps and johns, including setting up hotel stings and working the streets to develop a relationship with the girls and women she comes in contact with. Kohrell hopes to find their traffickers and bringing them to justice.

"Whether it's a physical barrier by force or fear, or it's a barrier that has been formed in their mind through manipulation and lies, they truly are entrapped and imprisoned," Kohrell said.

Baseline Street in downtown San Bernardino has been known as a prostitution track for years, but police said they're seeing more and more girls walking these streets now and that they're getting younger and younger.

"There was this group of girls that I started hanging out with. And one of them, she used to do it and stuff, so she kind of got me involved in it," said one prostitute. The 18-year-old was arrested for shoplifting, but Kohrell knew her well. She had arrested her three times for prostitution before she turned 18. The teen said she doesn't have a pimp, although police point to a man's name branded across her chest and her broken arm as evidence that she does.

According to California Against Slavery, the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 and most are running from abusive homes.

"My dad beat me up, drunk, so I ran away," said one woman who began prostituting at age 13. "I went to a friend's house, thought he was a friend. He sold me to a pimp for two grand and he told me if I told the pimp that if I was younger than 17 years old, he would come back and kill me."

Amy Andrews helps trafficking victims get back on their feet. She's an advocate now, but has led a troubled life. She recently took me back to the house were she said she was kept in a back room to provide sexual services for gang members as a 14-year-old girl. Her traffickers are long gone from the home and it is the first time she has been back in nearly two decades.

"They took my clothes from me," Andrews said. "I didn't have any food, blankets - nothing - and people would come and do whatever they wanted to me. I was raped over and over and over."

Thousands of girls like her have been robbed of their hopes and dreams and sold for a profit they may never see.

"You don't know if you're going to live or die," said one prostitute. "You don't know if this person is going to let you go. You want to sit there and cry for your parents, because that's who used to protect you, but not anymore, not in this world."

There is a new effort to reach them before it's too late.

"You see a girl who looks like she could be an adult, wearing a lot of make-up, wearing some provocative clothing, it's worth the second look, and if people think that maybe she's underage, it's worth the call to local law enforcement so that she can be checked," Kohrell said.

There are success stories out there and hopes for more of them.

"What I went through isn't what defines who I am today," Andrews said. "Surviving what I went through is what makes me who I am today."

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