On March 20, at a hearing in a small wood-paneled courtroom inside Seattle's Juvenile Detention Center at 12th Avenue and Alder Street, King County Prosecutor Stephanie Sato told the judge that a teenage girl on trial on charges of prostitution is a "danger to... the community."
According to the case file, the girl has been arrested three times for "loitering for the purpose of prostitution" near the same circuit. She also faces a weapons charge after police found a fixed-blade knife on her during an arrest. (One would imagine she had the blade as protection from johns.) After this series of encounters with law enforcement, the teen faces a potentially harsh sentence: one year of incarceration at the innocuously named Echo Glen Children's Center or the Naselle Youth Camp School.
This seems like a steep prescription for a teenager trapped in the dangerous and desperate world of teenage prostitution, but King County prosecutors and Seattle police are in agreement that the best way to deal with the problem is tough love.
In the last three years, the number of juvenile prostitution cases filed by King County prosecutors has steadily increased: with 13 cases filed in 2004, 22 in 2005, and 33 in 2006. But sentences for young men and women convicted of prostitution generally range from a 1- to 30-day incarceration period to community service and fines.
King County thinks that its desired punishment this time fits the crime. According to King County Prosecutors Office spokesman Dan Donahoe, the county is "still reviewing [its] options. She's engaged in extremely high-risk behavior [and] there's a lot of concern for her personal safety."
Seattle police agree that the girl cannot be allowed back on the street, as she will pose a danger to both herself and the community. "Every time she goes out there, she's a felony-making machine," says Seattle Vice Officer P. J. Fox (her arresting officer). "If she was your daughter, what would you want the SPD to do to keep her off the street? If you had a child, sometimes you've gotta know you've gotta put 'em in time out."
It is obvious that a girl in her teens involved in prostitution is not so much a criminal as she is a victim—and should be directed to social services. In fact, Seattle has several programs to help youth involved in prostitution. However, sites such as the Orion Center, Roots, and New Horizons have faced financial difficulties in the last five years, which has made outreach and retention of children involved in these services difficult. Even Officer Fox says that social-service programs, "[haven't] been a great enough priority."
The girl is being represented by public defenders from the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, but her attorney would not speak on the record about the case. However, it's clear that the county's strategy of incarceration-as-treatment raises red flags for professionals grappling with teenage prostitution.
Ron Ruthruff, director at New Horizons, a Seattle youth-services program, says, "I can understand the worry that she's a danger to herself, especially as a juvenile, but the issue we would have with incarceration is that she is the victim, not the perpetrator. A crime has been perpetrated against her when some older man paid to have sex with her. As long as there are 45-year-old men who want to have sex with young people, we will continue to have a problem."
New Horizons has counselors on staff to deal with young prostitutes and says it also refers the young women to case workers at other social-service centers like Street Outreach Services, Orion, and Spruce Street.
Ruthruff concludes: "Does Echo Glen have the capacity to deal with this? Is this a way to treat her or is this a way to warehouse her so that [King County] doesn't have to deal with her?"
At the end of the hearing, after the court decided it would reconvene next month, the girl, dressed in dark-blue jail garb, was led out by the bailiff. "There is a very high percentage she will be raped or even murdered [on the streets]," says Officer Fox, who concluded that ultimately she's "safer in jail."