The nation’s preeminent group fighting the sex trafficking of minors started rating states in 2011 and the nation as a whole received a failing grade.
In the most recent round of report cards released to the USA TODAY Network on Wednesday by Shared Hope International, the overall average is a solid B – marking another year of rising scores.
The grades included 15 states with an A, while two states – Maine and South Dakota – received D grades.
Despite the improvements, agency officials say a lot of work remains, focusing on the 20 states that still allow police to criminally charge minors with prostitution.
“It comes back to the word prostitute … and it is biasing our laws when the act would be considered statutory rape because it involves a child if no money were exchanged,” said Linda Smith, who founded Shared Hope in the late 1990s after serving in the U.S. Congress for Washington state for four years.
The report comes after several high-profile sex trafficking cases nationally, including the solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft as well as the infamous exploits of Jeffrey Epstein, the late former financier.
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And earlier this year, The Cincinnati Enquirer and the USA TODAY Network published the results of a year-long investigation into sex trafficking in the southern Ohio city of Portsmouth, where several women accused a former city councilman and other well-known men of sex trafficking.
“We’ve still got core issues that allow the buyer in big part to get reduced sentences or no penalty at all while the child or youth still have big challenges to get justice,” Smith said.
South Dakota is one of the few states that saw its numerical grade fall, primarily because of recent legislation that sent any minor involved in a commercial sex act through the criminal justice system.
Advocates there say the move was made to get minors at least some protection and treatment instead of just releasing them unsupervised.
“We need to make sure we have the structures and systems in place that have sustainability before we change the laws,” said Becky Rasmussen, executive director of the Sioux Falls-based nonprofit anti-trafficking agency Call To Freedom. She added that new federal grants will fund four new positions to help minor victims statewide.
But national officials say placing such minors behind bars, even for a night or two, can retraumatize them.
“There is not a full recognition that these kids are victims of a crime,” said Sarah Benson, policy counsel with Shared Hope.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said her state’s low grade was disappointing and a surprise, pointing to recent changes in state law that allow trafficking victims to expunge their records as minors and increase penalties for attempted human trafficking.
Still, “we’ve got some work to do,” Noem said, noting the issue with juveniles still being charged and jailed.
Maine recently removed laws allowing minors to be charged criminally with prostitution, but its score remained low, primarily because trafficking a minor in the state is only a low-level felony bringing penalties of only one to five years.
“We need to go after the traffickers and the demand side of it,” said state Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat from the Portland suburb of Windham. “We don’t want to be known for being a home of sex trafficking, especially for kids.”
Tennessee scored the highest, followed by Montana and Nevada, which has improved the most from when the grades began. Tennessee went from an F to an A between 2011 to 2019, jumping 11.5 points just in the last year.
Kimberly Mull, a survivor of juvenile sex trafficking originally from Texas, said she and other advocates have taken to camping out in the Nevada legislature to help pressure lawmakers there.
“Having a survivor’s voice and presence in the building makes a big difference,” said Mull, who said she was trafficked as a young teen and now works as a consultant on sex harassment and abuse in Las Vegas.
Shared Hope highlighted efforts or issues in several other states, noting the number of states that still allow minors to be criminally charged with prostitution.
In addition, 19 states require “third-party control,” or for a minor to identify his or her trafficker before charges can be brought against the adult.
“It’s our view that any child exploited sexually for commercial means is a victim of trafficking,” said Shared Hope’s senior director of public policy Christine Reno.
Contributing: Danielle Ferguson of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader. Follow James Pilcher on Twitter: @jamespilcher