ATLANTA - One of the nation's toughest crackdowns on human trafficking has taken effect in Georgia, striking a delicate balance between tougher penalties for criminals and more treatment for victims that advocates said could be a model for other states seeking to fight the sex trade.
The legislation took effect this month after a four-year legislative fight, overhauling the way Georgia treats people forced into prostitution. It bars prosecutors from charging people with sex crimes if the offense occurred while the person was a victim of trafficking. It also tacks on tough new criminal penalties for human traffickers.
The dual approach helped appease both religious conservatives, who argued the changes could effectively legalize prostitution, and children's advocates, who said a safety valve was needed for victims who were forced into the sex trade.
"This is America's dirty little secret, these are crimes the public doesn't see, that the public doesn't want to believe exist; these are hidden victims," said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who praised Georgia's new crackdown.
"Historically, what law enforcement has tended to do is to arrest the kid," he said. "We are trying to ensure that they focus on the pimp and the customer."
The legislation calls for a 25-year minimum sentence for those convicted of using coercion to traffic someone under the age of 18, and slaps a minimum sentence of five years on those who pay for sex with a 16-year-old. People trying to have sex with someone even younger face at least 10 years behind bars.
The measure includes protections that allow a prostituted child or adult to avoid criminal charges if they can prove they were coerced into it. Under the measure, coercion doesn't mean just physical abuse but also financial harm, destruction of immigration documents and drug use.
And the bill allows victims to be eligible for state money for medical treatment - as long as they cooperate with law enforcement.
The stiffer criminal penalties were added to earn the votes of tough-on-crime conservatives, who helped defeat a similar measure last year amid fears that the language would unwittingly end up legalizing prostitution for children under 16.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, the Georgia Republican who sponsored the bill, said it will help protect homeless children who get lured into the sex trade. And Attorney General Sam Olens, who made the legislation one of his top priorities, said it gives prosecutors several much-needed tools to fight prostitution.
"This new law will protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society and deter those bad actors who prey on them," Olens said.
Among the activists who helped sway lawmakers to adopt the stricter penalties is Keisha Head, who was lured into prostitution at the age of 16 after she ran away from home. She worked for a pimp for years, suffering rapes, abuse and an attempted kidnapping. Each time she tried to get out of her situation, the pimp threatened to harm her and her daughter.
"I became numb to what I was doing," she said. "I guess that is the survival instinct to become numb when inflicted with such an ordeal."
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Head has agreed to let her name be used to illustrate the dangers of child prostitution.
The new restrictions are a strong first step, Head said, but the work in Georgia is far from over.
"They need to turn up the heat," she said, "and start convicting the predators or the pimps who are exploiting the children."