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Stiffer penalties for buyers key to curbing sex trafficking

PHOENIX – When it comes to sex trafficking, the traffickers – usually pimps – traditionally receive the harshest legal punishments. However, states can do more to curb the practice by shifting that responsibility onto the men who purchase sex with young women, an advocacy group contends.

“You make a mistake when you buy bad fruit at a grocery store. You don’t make a mistake when you go shopping for kids,” said Linda Smith, a former congresswoman and founder and president of Shared Hope International.

The nonprofit organization, devoted to helping victims of sex trafficking reclaim their lives, held a news conference Monday to present findings from its Demanding Justice Project, a report assessing how buyers influenced sex trafficking in Phoenix and three other metropolitan areas where enforcement aims at curbing demand.

Of the 134 cases Shared Hope examined, defendants were found guilty in 113. However, 69 percent of the sentences were lessened, and 26 percent served no time at all.

In addition, none of the men accused of paying for sex with minors was charged with sex trafficking, the report said.

Lt. Jim Gallagher of the Phoenix Police Department, who participated in the news conference, said that while the average sentence for buyers was a year, the average time served was 90 days.

Gallagher said one challenge in combatting sex trafficking is lack of collaboration among officials and groups aiming to prevent it.

“What we lack is alignment. Everybody wants to throw resources at people but sometimes we don’t do it smartly. And we can overwhelm people, I think, with resources. We are moving very much in the direction of resource alignment,” Gallagher said.

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Smith founded the Vancouver, Wash.-based Shared Hope in 1998 with the goal of eliminating the conditions that contribute to sex trafficking. To accomplish this, the organization focuses on preventing sex trafficking, helping victims and strengthening laws against sex trafficking.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of our focus over this last couple of years with the majority of the states just focusing on laws around demand, creating a body of law in each state that made this a crime, at least a felony but a serious crime,” Smith said.

However, Smith said she looks at the issue from a different angle.

“It came down to this: I was asked, ‘Why is it happening, is it the prosecutor, is it the judge?’ And I simply have to say, it’s a tolerance in our culture for commercial sex that has been going on a long time,” Smith said.

Rebecca Bender, a sex trafficking survivor who participated in the news conference, said that the problem is fundamentally a cultural one. She had just one question for buyers:

“Would you think twice if you knew that my trafficker was waiting downstairs in the parking garage? If you knew that I was going to be beaten and strip-searched and every dollar that you just gave me taken, would you think twice before hiring a prostitute at your bachelor party? If you wouldn’t think twice, then you deserve to be sentenced,” Bender said.

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Stephen Hamway/Cronkite News Service

Shared Hope International shared findings from its Demanding Justice Project at a news conference held Monday at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix.

Metro areas studied

  • Phoenix
  • Seattle
  • Portland, Ore.
  • Washington/Baltimore