In 2003, my team and I were listening to wiretaps of gang leaders as part of a murder investigation. We heard the usual gang chatter about shootings and guns, but what really shocked us was all the talk about sex trafficking. We learned about how gang members would find young girls at local malls or high schools and force them into prostitution through abuse and manipulation. In San Diego alone, at least 110 gangs are involved in the commercial exploitation of people.

The sad reality is that under current law, members of organized crime know they are much less likely to go to prison for trafficking human beings than for trafficking drugs. Getting caught with a girl in your car isn’t a crime. It should come as no surprise that organized crime pivoted toward the safer enterprise.

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A recent study by Point Loma Nazarene and the University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace uncovered some horrifying statistics about the extent of this underground industry in San Diego County. Human trafficking is estimated to be an $810 million annual business that could have more than 8,000 victims a year. Out of 20 high schools surveyed, 100 percent reported incidents of recruitment, and 42 percent of first-time prostitution arrests are in fact sex-trafficking cases.

To address this ugly truth, an important shift has taken place in the way we as a culture discuss this issue. The term human trafficking – a more accurate description – has begun to replace prostitution, which erroneously implies a victimless crime. The victims are real and numerous.

In addition to changes in terminology, there are practical changes that should be made to the way we investigate and prosecute these crimes. Here are four ways the next city attorney can help combat human trafficking in San Diego:

Treat the victims as victims.

The average age of entry to sex trafficking is 16 years old. Many pimps require their girls to meet nightly monetary quotas, forcing them to service 10 to 20 men per night. Every time a “John” (the buyer) pays for sex, they perpetuate long-term, deep emotional trauma on their victims.

Buyers convicted of soliciting prostitution pay a fine. The revenue from these fines should go towards a victim fund that provides resources to victims of human trafficking.

Additionally, we need to treat the two parties involved in a prostitution transaction differently rather than grouping victims of human trafficking together with those who exploit them. Current state law views both parties as guilty of the same crime. This is an outdated and inaccurate view of the crime.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed SB 420, which changes state law to treat the purchasing and selling of sex as different crimes. This change, which takes effect next year, provides more tools for prosecutors to tackle this complex problem. The city attorney needs to adapt prosecution policies to use these new tools and approach the issue with the same distinction.

Expand and evaluate the Prostitution Impact Panel.

I recently attended a meeting of the Prostitution Impact Panel, a program designed to educate men arrested for solicitation in hopes that they can be persuaded not to reoffend.

The first thing that caught my attention was the fact that in a three-month period, only 15 men in the entire city were ordered to attend. One of the guest speakers told me that attendance used to be around 50 per meeting, but was down due to decreased enforcement. We cannot combat human trafficking by running away from enforcement.

Secondly, the effectiveness of the program is largely unknown. The city does not track the re-offense rate of men who do not participate in the program. Additionally, if enforcement actions are as low as they appear to be, the chances are minimal of re-arresting the same person more than once. This raises serious questions about our ability to measure the effectiveness of the program.

We need to increase enforcement and enrollment in the Prostitution Impact Panel program, expand it from quarterly to monthly, conduct a thorough study of its effectiveness, make monetary fines flow to victims and look for ways to improve outcomes of the program.

Deter the men who fund the industry.

Currently, buyers can face jail time and fines of up to $1,000 for solicitation; however, these penalties are rarely imposed.

Instead, men arrested for solicitation frequently plead down to a citation for disturbing the peace. This leniency is provided in exchange for their participation in the Prostitution Impact Panel. However, another way to push offenders into the program would be to seek jail time if they decline to participate.

Giving citations to a handful of buyers per month does not reflect the seriousness of the crime or broader situation with human trafficking in our region. Buyers need to know that the women they pay for are often there by force. They also need to know that they will be caught and will pay a price. We need to work with the San Diego Police Department to increase enforcement, and the charges need to be taken seriously.

Crack down on illegal massage parlors.

Massage parlors are a rapidly growing segment of human trafficking industry. Sadly, these highly organized operations are some of the most egregious examples of trafficking. Women are brought in from overseas and forced to work in order to pay off debts to traffickers, often under the threat that family members will be killed if they do not cooperate. The victims are moved through a well-organized multi-state circuit.

As the Union-Tribune reported in March, there are roughly 100 of these operations in San Diego county and the men who patronize them face little risk of being caught. The city’s strategy to combat these operations focuses on shutting down businesses through code enforcement. We can do better than sternly worded letters.

The city attorney has the ability to make it extremely difficult and costly for these criminal enterprises to set up shop in San Diego. We need a multi-pronged approach that utilizes aggressive code enforcement, active operations through SDPD and public pressure to deter potential customers from walking into these businesses.

Robert Hickey is a deputy district attorney and candidate for San Diego city attorney.

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