Youth Radio Investigation: Arresting Youth In Sex Trafficking Raises Debate In Oakland, Calif., known as a center for sex trafficking in children, police used to put a priority on arresting johns. But with cuts in funding the police now target the children who've been trafficked for sex. Prosecutors say arresting the victims is actually a way to save them. Some children's advocates disagree.
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Arresting Youth In Sex Trafficking Raises Debate

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Arresting Youth In Sex Trafficking Raises Debate

Arresting Youth In Sex Trafficking Raises Debate

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Yesterday, we aired Youth Radio's profile of two teenagers who escaped the sex trade in Oakland, California. Today, in the second half of our series, Trafficked, we'll hear how city police and community groups are fighting to save kids from the streets.

GUY RAZ, host:

According to the Oakland District Attorney's Office, a mid-level pimp trafficking just four girls can make more than $500,000 a year marketing those girls on the street and online.

Police say there are criminal networks that are moving into sexual exploitation of minors. The money is as good as selling drugs and safer. Thats because few traffickers are prosecuted and prison sentences are relatively short.

Youth Radios Denise Tejada and Brent Myers have the story.

DENISE TEJADA: Oakland is known as a center for sex trafficking, with a specialty in children. Police say Oakland youth are trafficked from their hometown out to other sex hubs like Portland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Prosecutors and youth advocates are both frustrated by California law, which makes it difficult to prosecute pimps and johns, and easy to go after the girls.

Lieutenant KEVIN WILEY (Oakland Police Department): I want to thank everybody for coming out tonight. Remember, priority number one is safety, right? Undercover officers, make sure you're aware of your 360 the entire time. No surprises out there, please

TEJADA: In downtown Oakland police headquarters, Lieutenant Kevin Wiley is briefing a group of FBI agents and police officers about to go on a sweep.

Until four years ago, Lieutenant Wiley's Vice and Child Exploitation Unit prioritized arresting johns. But those operations and the funding that made them possible have been cut. Instead, the Oakland Police Department now targets the children who've been trafficked, in an effort to get them off the streets and to get them to give up the names of their pimps.

Lt. WILEY: We're out there looking for pimps, anybody involved in human trafficking. If we can pick up some of the girls, that's great. We're targeting children the best we can. But we do want to get the big fish - that is, the pimps out there.

TEJADA: Youth Radio producer Brett Myers went on the Oakland PD sweep.

(Soundbite of ignition)

BRETT MYERS: Undercover cops driving beat-up used cars drive out to east Oakland's International Boulevard, the center of Oakland's red-light district, known as The Track.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

MYERS: A plainclothes officer watches from across the street as a young woman in a short skirt stands on the corner outside an empty storefront. A squad car pulls up. For these sweeps, police use a county probation rule that prohibits girls with prior prostitution arrests from going near International Boulevard.

Police say they don't have to see a girl making arrangements to get paid for sex to arrest her.

(Soundbite of car doors)

MYERS: Two officers from the squad car approach the woman, handcuff her, and drive her to a command center consisting of a police van parked behind a nearby Lucky's Supermarket.

Lt. WILEY: It's busy. We've been out here for about 45 minutes and we already have five girls that we have detained, arrested. One is a juvenile, so they're going to do an interview with her.

MYERS: The 15-year-old girl is separated from the adult prostitutes and placed in the back of a police car. She's wearing short-shorts and sandals with shiny silver straps crisscrossing up to her mid-calves.

Police question the girl. A victim advocate contracted by the county is nearby and will remain in close contact with her throughout the booking process.

Unidentified Man #1: Whats the zip code out there? Your zip code?

MYERS: The police officer uses the victim's pink cell phone to dial her parents, about 200 miles away in Fresno, California.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, so what's going to happen now is she's going to go down to the police department in the juvenile hall section. And then more than likely, you're going to have to come get her later on sometime tonight. Okay? I understand that you're in Fresno but do you have any family members out here, adults?

MYERS: To release this girl, police have to put her in the custody of her parents or a legal guardian.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, Im just letting you know that she's under arrest for soliciting prostitution. Okay?

MYERS: Police say the girl's parents never did pick her up. She was sent to juvenile hall and she never divulged the name of her pimp.

By the end of this sweep, police had arrested seven adult women, three girls, one pimp and no johns. It's a small victory. Police estimate 100 youth are trafficked as prostitutes on Oakland's Track every night.

(Soundbite of a police dispatcher)

TEJADA: Though they arrest few pimps and prosecute even fewer, Oakland police insist arresting the girls is a necessary first step toward shutting down sex trafficking. But many child advocates disagree.

Ms. NOLA BRANTLEY (Executive Director, M.I.S.S.S.E.Y.): The reason why we arrest them is because they're the easiest person to arrest.

TEJADA: Thats Nola Brantley. She was trafficked as a teenager and now she runs M.I.S.S.S.E.Y., a program that helps girls get out of the sex trade.

Mr. BRANTLEY: It's hard to arrest the johns, and they represent many different facets of society and life. It's hard to arrest the exploiters because of the amount of evidence thats necessary. So the easiest person to arrest is a child.

TEJADA: Brantley says these children are not really prostitutes.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Every act of what's being quote-unquote called, "prostitution" with these children is actually an act of child sexual abuse. And to take it further, child rape. So do I think children who are raped should be criminalized? No, I don't.

TEJADA: Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock counters that arresting the girls is actually a way to save them. It gives the county a way to introduce victimized girls to social services.

Ms. SHARMIN BOCK (Assistant District Attorney, Alameda County): Having a court involved with a case hanging over your head provides that added incentive to stay in a program, at the end of which a great likelihood exists you will recognize that you were in fact exploited.

TEJADA: Bock insists that the logistics of going after the men are daunting.

Ms. BOCK: Its very hard to get a hold of those johns because by the time you hear about it, theyre just a number. Its the child telling you: I had sex with 15 different men yesterday. Theyre long gone.

TEJADA: And theres another factor making it easier for johns to buy sex and for pimps to make money: the Internet.

Yesterday, we heard from Brittney and Darlene, two teenagers who escaped the sex trade on Oaklands streets and also online. To protect their safety were not using their real names.

BRITTNEY: He had me on Craigslist, Red Book, and there was another one. I think it was like Eros something, Eros Guide, I think, or something like that.

Unidentified Woman: Eros Guide.


TEJADA: Craig's List has removed the section that was used for sex trade, but there are many other sites. Thanks to the Internet, what used to be a local prostitution business is now global.

Marty Parker, who works on human trafficking cases for the FBIs Oakland office, says pimps arent invisible to law enforcement

Ms. MARTY PARKER (Federal Bureau of Investigation): Even though these guys think they're not leaving any track online, they are. Just a pimp posting an ad for these girls on, that gives us our interstate nexus right there, and we can then bring federal charges against him.

TEJADA: But Parker says that doesn't mean they'll be prosecuted anytime soon.

Ms. PARKER: We could do it every day if we had the manpower to do it. Unfortunately, there's too few people in the FBI who work these cases.

TEJADA: Youth Radios investigation has uncovered another crucial part of the online sex trafficking infrastructure. Girls describe photo studios in Oakland where young women pose in sets that look like bedrooms. Studios provide lingerie, wigs and makeup. Some routinely upload X-rated photos and write and post online sex ads in other cities. Child advocates say the laws need to catch up with whats happening online and on the street because Americas girls are out there day and night for sale.

For NPR News, Im Denise Tejada.

BLOCK: Our story was produced by Youth Radio. At our website, you can find photos from the sting we heard about, as well as a link to firsthand stories of street life. There's also a pimp's handwritten business plan that was seized by Oakland Police. That's at

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