Oregon bill targets johns who pay for sex with minors

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would toughen penalties for johns who solicit sex from underage prostitutes as part of a broader push to crack down on child sex trafficking in the state.

The bill's provisions are still being hammered out, but the intent is to impose harsher punishments on people who seek sex with children.

A fierce disagreement has emerged, however, over just how harsh those punishments should be. Child safety advocates say johns should be charged with a felony on their first offense, but critics say that's too harsh.

The bill could come up for a vote in the House next week.

Quashing demand for child prostitutes would make the sex trafficking industry less profitable for pimps, resulting in fewer victims being brought into the sex trade, said Portland Police Officer Mike Gallagher, who has a long history of fighting prostitution.

Gallagher said in his experience going after johns, he's observed that they are more afraid of being charged with a felony and having to register as a sex offender than paying a steep fine, which they can typically afford.

“If it was public knowledge that they would get a prison sentence and have to be a registered sex offender, they would think twice,” Gallagher said.

“They are not afraid of the monetary value, but I do get asked if this is going to be a felony or if their picture is going to end up in the paper,” he said.

Anti-trafficking advocates took their case to the Legislature, proposing a bill that would have charged people caught patronizing an underage prostitute with a felony on their first offense, with a presumptive sentence of roughly three years in prison. The Senate Judiciary Committee changed the bill, making it a felony after a person is arrested a third time for soliciting sex with a minor.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the original bill went too far.

For example, Prozanksi said, the original bill would have allowed felony charges against an 18-year-old senior in high school who had sexual contact with his 16- or 17-year-old girlfriend after taking her on a date and paying the bill.

The House sought a compromise, proposing a felony charge on a second offense. But anti-trafficking advocates aren't satisfied.

Liz Alston of Shared Hope International, an advocacy group that fights sex trafficking, said Oregon will become a magnet for sex trafficking if it doesn't make paying for sex with a minor a felony on the first offense.

“We might as well put a billboard up at our borders: Come shop Oregon,” Alston said.

The group's analysis of states’ sex trafficking laws found that Oregon is one of only a handful of states that doesn't charge johns soliciting underage prostitutes with a felony the first time they're caught.

Under a law passed in 2011, soliciting sex from an underage prostitute carries a $10,000 fine on the first offense and a $20,000 fine on the second.

Gail Meyer, a lobbyist for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said making the crime a felony on the first offense is too harsh a penalty for people who inadvertently patronize a minor.

“Our laws don't differentiate between the person who knowingly purchases sex from a minor and the person who has every reason to believe that they are purchasing sex from a consenting adult,” Meyer said.

In the bill's current form, johns facing a first conviction would face a $10,000 fine, 30 days in jail and completion of a “john school” program that teaches them about the sex-trafficking industry. Students in john school are taught how the sex trade destroys lives.

“It gives the people an opportunity to correct their behavior,” Meyer said.

Lawmakers have proposed several other bills aimed at better protecting children from being lured or coerced into sex trafficking, including one that would allow minors charged with prostitution to use their age as a defense.

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