SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to support legislation aimed at closing a loophole in federal child sex trafficking laws and speeding prosecution of suspects.
The Child Protection Act of 2013, authored by Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, would remove a requirement that the alleged trafficker must have known the victim was a minor. The bill is also known as “Hazel’s Law.”
Under existing law, the trafficker’s knowledge of the victim’s age at the time the crime was committed is a major factor in determining the length of a sentence imposed, according to Supervisors Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob.
“These children have suffered enough,” Cox said. “They shouldn’t have to suffer more waiting for justice to be delivered.”
The average age that girls become prostitutes in the United States is between 12 and 14 years old, and most are runaways, former foster youth or homeless, which make them prime targets for sex traffickers, according to the supervisors.
“Child predators target vulnerable youth who might have a history of problems or who have escaped a home of parental abuse and neglect,” Cox said. “Through mind games and manipulation, these children are forced into the sex trade.”
Cox and Jacob contend prosecution of alleged child sex traffickers is frequently delayed because law enforcement has to spend time looking for evidence that they knew their victims’ ages.
“Hazel’s Law” is named after a San Diegan identified as Hazel C., who at 17 was abducted by 41-year-old Maurice Lerome Smith of Oceanside and forced into prostitution.
“This wasn’t an issue of prostitution or choice or drugs,” Hazel told the board. “This was a snake in the grass — and I got bit.”
Hazel escaped and contacted law enforcement, but she said her abductor’s prosecution was delayed for about six months while investigators tried to prove he knew her age. The proof was eventually found, and the defendant was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
“Supporting this law and getting it passed means that it won’t be such a burden to prove it,” Hazel said.
San Diego’s other Democratic congressional members, Susan Davis and Scott Peters, are co-sponsors.
Supervisor Bill Horn said the punishment for convicted sex traffickers was not severe enough.
“These people are not redeemable, no matter how long the prison term is,” Horn said. “Once they get involved in the sex trade, they’re just not going to reform. It’s a profitable business to them.”
Hazel’s Law is now before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.
“This is but another effort to tighten up those laws — make them tougher for sex traffickers who are doing great harm to our young girls,” Jacob said.
In other action, the supervisors Tuesday also approved in principle plans to demolish and rebuild the assessor/recorder/clerk’s office in El Cajon.