The King County Prosecutor's Office may be implementing a new strategy when it comes to teenage prostitutes. The typical sentence for teen prostitutes ranges from 0 to 30 days of incarceration. As the number of charges brought by King County has increased, with 22 in 2005 and 33 in 2006, King County appears to be pursuing harsher sentences. After we reported one case last week, in which King County prosecutors were seeking a yearlong sentence for a teenager facing multiple prostitution charges ["Incarcerate the Victim," March 22, Jonah Spangenthal-Lee], a source in the Seattle Police Department told us he believes there's at least one more case of aggressive prosecution in the system. We could not locate the case by press time. King County claims that any harsher approach is in response to repeat offenses by these teens.
"When somebody breaks the law, the only thing I can do... is book her into a youth-services center," says Seattle Vice Officer P. J. Fox. "It's a crime. There has to be some penalty."
While police enforce the law, moving these teens from the streets to jail cells, social programs that confront root causes—once the traditional response—have increasingly become a struggling alternative. The Orion Center, a local drop-in facility that provides everything from employment training to meals and laundry facilities, recently lost $100,000, half of its federal funding. Dr. Melinda Giovengo, the executive director of YouthCare, which runs the Orion Center, flags the catch-22 of disappearing funds. "If the programs lose visibility, they lose dollars." Obviously, when these programs lose dollars, they lose their visibility.
Washington State and the City of Seattle both have funds earmarked for social programs for teen prostitutes, supported by fines paid by johns. The combined funds hold over $200,000. However, the money is currently only being distributed for case management rather than for more vital and desperately needed services, like housing, that make case management worthwhile.
Without these funds, programs like Orion are unable to provide full services to teens, creating a cycle where the youths are moved in and out of the judicial system—incarcerated with other juveniles convicted of rape, murder, and robbery. "Any time you mix... victims of crimes [with perpetrators], we're not doing a service to these young people," Giovengo says. "It's a revolving door in detention. These young women are being released... with no safety net. These [teens] are the victims of the crimes, not criminals."
While there is a lack of consensus on the best way to help teens involved in prostitution, there is currently a push at the state level by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Seattle) to establish stricter sentencing guidelines for johns who patronize young prostitutes. Senate Bill 5718's wording accurately characterizes every transaction between a john and a juvenile as "commercial sexual abuse of [a] minor," recognizing that teenage girls involved in prostitution are, in fact, victims.