Officials in Los Angeles County are adopting a get-tough tactic to deter men from soliciting sex from girls who are forced into prostitution — charging them with crimes that could mean prison time and registration as a sex offender.

Targeting "johns," or commercial sex buyers, is not a new concept, but hitting them with felonies such as rape, child abuse or endangerment and conspiracy is a step beyond the misdemeanor citations and fines customers typically receive in California and many other states.

"What are johns? They're pedophiles, they're child molesters," LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told The Associated Press. "If we can take away the demand and very clearly let people know this is going to ruin their life ... We're hoping that's going to be a disincentive."

The county is the nation's most populous, with more than 10 million residents. A taskforce that's expected to be in place this fall will pursue the stiffer charges, a push that puts Los Angeles at the national forefront of "appropriately going after the buyers" of child sex workers, according to Malika Saada Saar, head of the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Project for Girls.

For about a decade, Scandinavian countries have pioneered the so-called Nordic model, which aims to attack sex trafficking by targeting customers to decrease demand. The concept has gained traction in the United States in recent years with states including Massachusetts, New York and Colorado increasing fines and penalties. And law enforcement has started to move away from arresting women for prostitution and treating them like criminals.

California is one of the nation's top four destinations for trafficking human beings, according to the state attorney general's office, and transnational gangs are increasingly trafficking humans because it's low risk and highly profitable.

Five girls working for a trafficker seven days a week brings in an estimated $600,000 to $800,000 annually. The average age in California for a girl who is sex trafficked is 12 years old and some are as young as 9 years old, McDonnell said. The average age of entry into sex work nationally is 15 years old, said Ziba Cranmer, executive director of Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Demand Abolition.

California doesn't have a specific law treating johns as traffickers, so jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and Alameda counties are trying to use existing sex laws against buyers.

Nearly two dozen other states have trafficking laws that target buyers, but having them on the books doesn't necessarily mean they're employed.

"They're just not really being used as a tool for combating demand, even though they're technically available in a lot of states," said Christine Raino, director of public policy for Shared Hope International, a nonprofit working to eradicate sex trafficking.

Seattle has one of the most stringent sex trafficking laws. Passed in 2007, it allows customers to be charged with the commercial sexual abuse of a minor. The penalty is mandatory sex offender registration and 21 to 27 months in prison.

But the law was not really used until a little over two years ago. That's because, even more difficult than altering the perception that prostitution is a victimless crime, is making people understand that buyers are the ones driving the market, said Valiant Richey, a prosecutor at King County district attorney's office in Seattle.

"The problem is everybody gets really nervous about that because buyers are middle-to-upper-class white men, who are often professional," Richey said.

King County has convicted roughly 85 people charged with the crime so far.

In California soliciting an underage sex worker carries a penalty two days to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Casey Bates said existing punishments for sex buyers are "akin to a DUI essentially."

"And unlike a DUI, where it's a mandatory 48 hours in custody, a judge can actually make a finding and set aside the time when you purchase a child," Bates said.

The new Los Angeles task force of nonprofits, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors aims to build stronger, more cohesive cases so that filing a sex charge becomes "the rule, not the exception," said Los Angeles County prosecutor Jane Creighton, who heads the agency's human trafficking committee.

And because up to 80 percent of commercial sex is now sold online, sheriff's deputies received cyber training last week to help track down purchasers online.

"Right now, they arrest them for solicitation, they slap them on the wrists, they give them a citation, go home and we'll see you in five days ... and we won't tell anybody," said Michelle Guymon, director of child trafficking unit in the Los Angeles County Probation Department.


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