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Wisconsin ‘Safe Harbor’ bill would bar minors from being prosecuted for prostitution

Bipartisan backers say the legislation would help combat child sex trafficking

Gavel on a law desk
Joe Gratz (CC)

Lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on a bipartisan bill that would bar people under the age of 18 from being prosecuted for prostitution in Wisconsin.

More than two dozen states have passed similar laws, often referred to as “Safe Harbor” laws, according to Shared Hope International. Supporters say such measures help combat sex trafficking by ensuring that young victims will have legal immunity if they come forward to authorities.

“In circumstances where a child, an individual under 18-years-old, is engaged in sex trafficking, the trafficker will manipulate and utilize the risk of their prosecution to deter the child from seeking help,” said Ozaukee County Sheriff Christy Knowles, who testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association.

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Wisconsin lawmakers introduced similar legislation in 2017, 2019 and 2021, but it never cleared the full Legislature.

In Wisconsin, the legal age for consenting to sexual intercourse is 18. And a state law that took effect in 2017 expanded the definition of child sex trafficking and added it to Wisconsin’s definition of child abuse. The law also required law enforcement agencies to report suspected child sex trafficking to child welfare agencies.

Even so, children in Wisconsin are still becoming entangled with the criminal justice system as a result of being sex trafficked, said Democratic Rep. Jill Billings of LaCrosse, a sponsor of the Safe Harbor bill.

Seven minors, who were between the ages of 14 and 17, have been charged with prostitution in Wisconsin since 2017, Billings testified this week.

“The Wisconsin statute includes many laws that make it a crime to have sex with a child,” Billings said. “It therefore stands to reason that, if some Wisconsin laws treat minors as victims of sexual predation, all Wisconsin laws should treat minors as victims of sexual predation. All Wisconsin laws should treat minors as victims of prostitution — not as criminals.”

Some lawmakers raised questions about whether the removal of criminal penalties would make it difficult for police to detain sex trafficked children as a means of removing them from the situation. Police and other officials could still use child welfare laws to seek protective custody of children who are suspected trafficking victims, sponsors said.

Prostitution is illegal in Wisconsin, and will remain illegal if the bill passes, sponsors said.

Between 2014 and 2018, 24 law enforcement agencies in 16 different Wisconsin counties reported at least one arrest of a juvenile for prostitution, while at the same time reporting zero incidents of human trafficking, according to a 2019 report compiled by Wisconsin’s Department of Justice.

“That gives you an idea of how we are viewing this,” Ragan Shapiro, a legislative advisor for Wisconsin’s Department of Children & Families, told lawmakers. “There is a disconnect.”

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