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California legislators water down bill making buying child prostitutes a felony

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(The Center Square) – Over the author’s objections, California legislators watered down of a bill that would make soliciting sex from underage prostitutes a felony. Under the amended bill now solicitation of 16 and 17 year-olds will remain a misdemeanor.

State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, introduced SB 1414, which would make solicitation, attempting to engage or engaging in sex with a minor for money a felony with a prison sentence ranging from 2 to 4 years, a fine not exceeding $25,000, and registration as a sex offender. The bill would punish all those who solicit from a child, regardless of whether or not the person knew or reasonably should have known that the person solicited was a minor.

Under existing law, such crimes are misdemeanors, with felony charges only available for cases involving minors 14 or under, or use of force, but Grove says these loopholes encourage offenders to use older children to avoid consequences.

“In order to sell a child for sex there must be someone willing to purchase a child for sex,” said Grove to the State Senate Public Safety Committee. “That’s why we’re here today.”

Grove authored SB 14 last year, a bill that became law, which made child sex trafficking a serious felony. SB 14 passed unanimously in the state Senate before failing its first vote in the Assembly Public Safety Committee after Assembly Majority Leader Issac Bryan (D—Los Angeles) blocked the bill over concerns that any increase in sentencing would “increase our investment in systems of harm and subjugation.”

Natasha Minsker, a policy advisor for Smart Justice California and the lead speaker in opposition to the bill, focused on the potential harm to other minors making bad decisions.

“The bill as drafted is not limited to older adults soliciting children. It’s not limited to adult soliciting at all but applies even if the person soliciting is 16 or 17,” Minsker said to the committee. “The bill applies even if the person solicited is just a day away from their 18th birthday and has no requirement for an age difference between the two individuals. This is a significant departure from the laws of almost every other state in this area.”

In response to the opposition, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and the committee offered amendments to address punishment-related concerns. These amendments included removing punishment for those who did not know and could not reasonably have known the solicited child was a minor, removed solicitation of 16 and 17 year olds from coverage, reduced first-time offenses to a wobbler that can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, and allows first-time offenders to not have to register for the sex offenders registry.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who said he would support a version of the bill adopting the committee’s amendments, said “This bill goes well beyond human trafficking … This bill will sweep in a lot of people who are not trafficking. This bill will send people to state prison, put people on the ex offender registry, which is basically, in many ways , the end of their life — for people whether or not they engage in human trafficking, and even if there’s no physical contact whatsoever.”

Skinner then put forward a successful motion to adopt all of the committee’s amendments over Grove’s objections, which is a rare action in the legislature. The only members to not vote for adopting the amendments were State Senators Kelly Seyarto, R-Murrietta, and Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. With the adopted amendments, the bill now moves on from the Public Safety Committee.