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In Wisconsin, minors who are trafficked can still be charged for prostitution. That could change soon

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MADISON — Under current Wisconsin law, despite the fact that minors cannot legally consent to sexual activity until they turn 18, minors acting as prostitutes can still face criminal prosecution. A proposal moving forward in the state Legislature could change that.

The so-called “Safe Harbor” bill has been sitting in legislative limbo for years, but may actually get passed this session. A public hearing on it Thursday in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee showed bipartisan support.

The bill would prevent underage people from being charged with prostitution.

Safe harbor

Most states already have protections for such young people, most of whom are victims of trafficking — but Wisconsin laws don’t protect them. The Department of Justice reported that, between 2014 and 2018, 16 Wisconsin counties had reported at least one juvenile arrest for prostitution.

Van Wanggaard


“It’s a good, good bill,” state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said in an interview last week following the public hearing; Wanggaard is chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “This bill has been working through the process for, I think, three prior sessions.”

The Senate passed the bill two years ago. The Assembly never voted on it.

According to a 2016 fact sheet from the National Council of Jewish Women: “Sex traffickers often target runaway and homeless youth, as well as children who have been abused or neglected. When minors are forced to engage in commercial sex, it places them at risk for prosecution under prostitution laws. ... Safe Harbor Laws protect child victims of sex trafficking from unjust criminalization.

“Further, because Safe Harbor Laws redirect arrested minors from juvenile delinquency proceedings to child protection proceedings, they give sexually exploited children access to specialized services. Safe Harbor Laws also promote the use of safe houses rather than juvenile detention for child survivors of sex trafficking.”

Wanggaard and other supporters of the bill hope it will lead to more traffickers and pimps facing charges.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee


“There’s usually no direct consequence for the pimps but there are for the victims,” state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, was quoted as saying by regarding the proposal.

After Minnesota passed its Safe Harbor bill, convictions of sex traffickers quadrupled. In Kentucky as well, prosecutions of traffickers ticked up slightly after the bill was passed.

The Wisconsin Office of the State Public Defender says the change is needed because youths caught up in prostitution should be treated as victims rather than perpetrators. The majority of lobbyists in the state who have weighed in support the bill, including several law enforcement organizations, anti-sexual assault groups, two social workers’ associations and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

The only group opposed is Wisconsin Family Action Inc., a fundamentalist Christian group.

Authorities say child trafficking networks have increased their presence on social media, where unsuspecting children are often lured into exploitation.

Of the young people protected from prosecution through this bill, “they’re a victim; they’re not out there selling their body for themselves,” said Wanggaard, a retired Racine Police Department officer. “Our law enforcement people understand what it is for some of these young people is fear of arrest, let alone the shame that goes along with being trafficked. (The Safe Harbor bill) is one step toward … getting traffickers off the street.”


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