CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Every Wednesday morning, teenage prostitutes appear in District Judge William Voy's court where they
receive minor sentences he readily admits won't keep them from going back to their pimps and the mean streets.
"The kids I am seeing are 13-, 14-, 15-years-old who are being pimped out by criminals," Voy said. "The youngest was 12. The majority are victims, but a unique kind of victim. They don't realize they are victims."
Some are detained in jail briefly to see if they will turn against their pimp; others are sent to a juvenile detention center, a foster home, group home or to their home state. Sixty percent have come to Las Vegas from elsewhere.
Typically they run away again and return to prostitution.
What they don't receive - and need - is adequate psychological help in a secure setting, Voy said.
For three years, he and other juvenile justice advocates have tried unsuccessfully to find the $800,000 it would cost to build and staff a 14-bed safe house for sexually exploited children.
Now Voy has the worst recession in generations complicating his efforts to find funds.
A partial solution may be coming in a bill being drafted by newly elected Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas.
Under Hambrick's proposal, judges could freeze assets of pimps and panderers of children when they are arrested.
If they are convicted, the state would seize assets, such as cars, homes, safety deposit boxes, cash and other valuables. The convicted pimps also would be assessed a civil penalty of $500,000.
Sixty percent of funds raised by the forfeitures would go to the district attorney's office to help prosecute pimps. Forty percent would go toward the secure facility envisioned by Voy.
"I want to make it economically unfeasible for them to participate in the sex trade in this state," said Hambrick, a former Secret Service agent and federal law enforcement officer.
Similar laws have been used to confiscate assets of drug dealers, and Hambrick's proposal has the backing of Voy and Clark County District Attorney David Roger.
"Most of these kids are either runaways or throwaways," Hambrick said. "They have Stockholm syndrome and believe the pimp is their friend."
Kathleen Boutin, founder and director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, hails Hambrick's proposal, but also predicts it
won't entirely prevent sexual exploitation of minors.
"The kids themselves need to be held responsible," she said. "It is so easy to label them as victims, but at some point they chose to do it. The people who exploit them are paying them very well."
From her experience in talking with homeless youth, young girls often re approached and offered several hundred dollars by men to pose for pornographic photos.
Their exploiters usually are pedophiles and many of these girls do not have pimps, she added.
Invariably when they were 2- or 3-year-old, these girls were touched or sexually molested by adults, she said.
Most of them lived in homes with drug-addicted parents. By the time they were 6 or 7 years old, they became the primary caregivers of their parents. The parents, often drug-addicted, would not let them go to school and wanted them home to care for other children and their own needs.
So when they are 12 or so, they run away from home and find they can get money through prostitution or pornography, she said.
"It becomes part of their moral fabric," Boutin added. "It is a long and painful process to get them out of this cycle. It would take a whole army to enforce the (Hambrick) law."
Over the past 28 months, Voy has presided at hearings for 385 teenage prostitutes.
His most difficult problem is finding witnesses to testify against pimps or panderers.
"A lot of jurisdictions just do a 'catch and release' (for underage prostitutes). They know the child won't be around to testify."
But with a safe house, the teens could receive counseling for at least a couple of weeks and then they would be more likely to testify against their pimps, Voy said.
That also would mean more forfeitures to pay for operating the safe house.
Melissa Snow, director of programming for Shared Hope International, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tries to help teen prostitutes, said she liked Voy's idea.
Snow said forfeiture laws have been used at the federal level and, in one case, more than $400,000 was recovered from a pimp.
A study by Shared Hope in 2007 called Las Vegas a major destination for sexually exploited youth, in part because of its "hyper-sexualized entertainment industry."
Researchers found 400 underage prostitutes on the streets of Las Vegas in May 2007, and Snow said the "What happens in Vegas stays
in Vegas" mentality and taxi signs that feature half-naked strippers creates the image that prostitution is tolerated. It also gives a "veneer of legitimacy" to illegal sexual activity with youth.
But she added that children are sexually exploited in all major cities in the U.S.
Voy agreed, saying that prostitutes are found in Salt Lake City, Phoenix and other urban settings.
"As a human being, I just can't let a 14-year-old who has been pimped in San Diego and Los Angeles and now here go back to her pimp," he added. "What do I do with these children?"
On the Net:
Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth: http://www.nphy.org
Protection of Sexual Exploited Children in Nevada:
Shared Hope International: http://www.sharedhope.org
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)