Arresting minors as prostitutes. It’s an odd thing, if you think about it, and Wisconsin state Assembly Rep. Jill Billings wants it to end.
January is human trafficking awareness month, and Billings, who represents the 95th district, including La Crosse, has been working years on trying to pass legislation to protect minors, who are victims of sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking has been consistently documented in all 72 Wisconsin counties. Current law states that a minor, who is being sex trafficked, can be arrested and charged with prostitution, even though they aren’t old enough to consent.
“Unfortunately we still have that law on the books that says that kids can be charged with prostituition,” Billings explained. “What I am trying to do is get that law off the books. We don’t need that to protect kids anymore and we shouldnt be charging kids with prostitution”
The main justification for this is that, by arresting the child and putting them through the judicial system, authorities can keep better track of the victims and get them the help they need.
However, arresting the child, putting them through the courts and having a prostitution charge on their record, often does much more harm than good.
In 2015, a bill sponsored by Billings was passed, that adds human trafficking to the definition of child abuse and neglect. This allowed Human Services to get involved whenever there was a report of trafficking.
Minnesota has a similar Safe Harbor bill and the state has found that, by involving Human Services rather than arresting minors, those children were more likely to cooperate and give up the name of their trafficker, and traffickers, themselves, were four times more likely to be arrested.
“For a lot of those kids, it’s almost like brainwashing,” Billings said. “These kids have histories that include trauma, so they are vulnerable, and their traffickers prey on those types of children. They convince them that they are the only person who cares about them … and that by giving their traffickers up, they could both get in trouble.”
When a child is arrested for prostitution, rather than getting the help they need, they often feel as though the messages traffickers tell them are validated, making the child less likely to cooperate with law enforcement.
The 2015 law was only half of the Safe Harbor bill that Billings has been trying to pass. While getting human services involved is important, the second step is getting rid of the law that enables children to be arrested for being trafficked.
“It’s illegal to have sex with a child in Wisconsin … but suddenly, once that money changes hands, the child who is a victim suddenly becomes a criminal,” Billings said. “It’s just wrong and it makes no sense.”
This bill has bipartisan support and has been backed by both the Scott Walker and Tony Evers administrations.
It also has support from law enforcement, yet it still has not passed.
A lot of misinformation about the bill has been spread, likely playing a large part in the prevention of its passing. One example is many people believing that the bill will pave the way toward the legalization of prostitution.
“This is not a bill that legalizes prostitution,” Billings said. “There is nothing further from the truth. This is about protecting kids. The bottom line is that children cannot give consent in Wisconsin, so why is it that these kids are considered criminals?”
While the current legislation allows a child to be arrested, in La Crosse this rarely happens.
La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke has stated that the city won’t charge minors and, instead, gets child protective services involved.
“Our law enforcement gets it,” Billings explained. “They are very smart on this issue. But that is not the case in every county.”
Right now, the Safe Haven bill is sitting in a committee waiting for a hearing. Billings has sent multiple letters to the committee chair asking to move the bill forward but at this point it’s a waiting game.
“I will never let this legislation die,” Billings said. “I have talked to too many kids and heard their stories … it’s time to get this bill through.”