Recent headlines discussing the legalization of child prostitution in California have taken the country by storm.

Has California done such a thing? Or hasn’t it? Was the law prudent or foolish?

As a California law enforcement officer, I have dedicated my life to helping those who can’t help themselves, and so child prostitution debates strike a nerve with me. This is not just a political debate for my colleagues and me. This is what we dedicate our lives to. I can say with full confidence that California has implemented a harmful policy that will cause further exploitation of our state’s most vulnerable children.

California SB 1322 “exempts persons under 18 years of age from criminal statutes regarding soliciting, engaging in, and loitering for purposes of prostitution if that minor receives money or other consideration.” Further, it “will require a law enforcement officer to refer the juvenile to a county social services agency.” Make no mistake, California: This is the legalization of child prostitution.

We law enforcement types tend to steer away from the political sphere and focus on our job. But when Sacramento politicians and our local media would rather play semantics than truly address the issue at hand, it became irresponsible to stay silent.

There is no amount of spin or “fact check” articles that can change the reality that children can now engage in sex for money without fear of reprisal. In a thinly veiled attempt to save face supporters of this harmful policy are saying this statement is “misguidedly” referencing pimps and johns. Pedophilia is illegal, adult prostitution is illegal, soliciting sex is illegal — yet the act of child prostitution is now exempted from these laws.

On the subject of pimps — it is important to note that this black market thrives on legal loopholes such as these. Not only did California tie law enforcement’s hands and remove their only opportunity to address the source of this heinous issue — California has now provided pimps more incentive to recruit and exploit minors: only these prostitutes would be shielded from arrest and jailing. Further, we have now given them a marketing tool to appeal to our most vulnerable youth by telling them that our justice system now no longer criminalizes this act.

I have seen the claims stating that law enforcement can still “interfere.” Temporary custody and referring juveniles to a county social services agency is in not sufficient for disrupting the child sex trade. That requires tools to truly get to the source of child prostitution – by taking down the pimp. It’s not a pleasant fact, but it’s true: Without the threat of criminal charges, coerced child prostitutes have no incentive to turn in their pimps. By eliminating the jurisdiction of the juvenile delinquency court, California politicians took away tools prosecutors and law enforcement can use to convince a juvenile prostitute to turn in her pimp, get the help she needs, and end the cycle.

Supporters of SB 1322 surely have good intentions. They, however, imply that we law enforcement officials opposing their law do not have the same exact goal. We’re not trying to punish children. We’re steering them to safety. The purpose of the juvenile delinquency system is to rehabilitate, not to punish, which is exactly why juvenile records are nearly automatically sealed for most crimes.

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I am glad to see this national outcry take place, as it forces all parties to come to the table to truly look at this very important issue. I call on Sacramento politicians to take this opportunity to come back to the drawing board and work with law enforcement to address this serious issue, not cut them out of the process.

Call a policy what it really is — legalization — takes us one step closer to taking meaningful action to help California’s youth. Child prostitution has now been unintentionally legalized in California, that is not the question. The question is what we are going to do about it.

Tony Herrera is a California law enforcement officer with more than a decade of experience with undercover prostitution related cases. He is writing on behalf of E3 Research, a policy think tank dedicated to providing expert opinion on key policy issues affecting California. These opinions are his own and of his colleagues but does not formally reflect that of his parent agency or the department he works for. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.

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