Shared Hope study: Courts treat buyers of child sex too lightly

In Portland area, average sentence 14 days in jail, report says

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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A recent study from a Vancouver-based organization found that people sentenced in the Portland metro area for paying for sex with children serve an average of 14 days in jail.

The statistic came out of a report from Shared Hope International and the Sex Trafficking Intervention Research Office at Arizona State University, which questions whether buyers are sentenced to the fullest extent of the law when they’re charged at the state level.

Although there’s been focus on pimps and child victims, commercial sex buyers have been largely ignored, according to former congresswoman Linda Smith of Vancouver, who founded Shared Hope.

“Are they just out there shopping with no worry?” she asked.

The Demanding Justice report released Monday documents 134 cases in Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, and the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area. In 26 percent of cases, the buyer served no jail time. In most cases where the buyer served time, the sentences were reduced by 85 percent.

In the study, Portland had the highest rate of cases, 62.5 percent, that concluded with a buyer of sex acts with a minor receiving a misdemeanor conviction. Portland, Seattle and Vancouver are among several cities involved in a trafficking circuit, according to Washington’s Task Force Against Trafficking of Persons report.

Smith argues that buyers drive the market and that more serious penalties for their crimes could help deter some people from buying sex with children.

Someone who shops online, sets up a “date” and goes someplace to receive sex from a child knows what he’s doing and plans it well, Smith said. Online advertisements may list the girl as 18, but certain code words in the ads indicate to the buyer that she’s actually younger.

While local police stings uncover these crimes, the prosecutors tend to offer plea bargains and then the judge defers part of the sentence, Smith said. About one-third of the time, buyers don’t end up on sex offender registries, according to the report.

“If I have a sexual predator in my neighborhood, I want to know,” Smith said.

A Clark County teenager she worked with, who was trafficked for 1½ years, told her she was confused why buyers never seemed to get in trouble.

Washington state was one of the first to enact a state trafficking law in 2003. Four years later, the laws were overhauled to clarify that these are crimes of sexual exploitation, rather than prostitution. The Demanding Justice report is among the first steps for advocates, who are looking for push for more aggressive prosecution.