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County attorneys won't prosecute juvenile prostitutes

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput discusses a change in prosecution governing juvenile victims of prostitution. He was joined at a Friday news conference by other county attorneys and members of law enforcement, including Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague (center) and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom (right). Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

ST. PAUL -- Underage prostitutes will be treated as victims and not criminals, top county attorneys from the Twin Cities area announced Friday.

Current state law, which defines juvenile prostitutes as both victims and delinquents of sex trafficking, is contradictory, attorneys from Washington, Dakota, Ramsey, Anoka and Carver counties said at a news conference.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he hopes knowing they won't be prosecuted will lead more juvenile victims of prostitution to come forward.

"We're saying we aren't going to treat you kids as delinquents - as criminals - we see you as victims," he said in an interview.

Rather than entering the criminal justice system, juvenile prostitution victims will be steered toward social services and child-protective services, the attorney said.

Historically, juvenile prostitutes have been arrested, detained and placed in the juvenile court system.

Attorneys at the news conference were joined by members of law enforcement and three former prostitutes who spoke in support of the change.

One of the women, who identified herself only as "Courtney," said she became involved in prostitution at the age of 15 by a pimp who "manipulated me into thinking it was OK."

Out of the lifestyle now, she said feels freed as a woman.

"There's no price on my life anymore," she said.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said some of the girls coerced into prostitution begin as young as 11 years old.

He promised child prostitution cases will be prosecuted "aggressively."

"In many ways it's reached epidemic levels," he said of the crimes.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the change does not require legislative approval since lawyers are allowed discretion in prosecuting cases. However, he said there is a bill before state lawmakers this session that would "clarify these situations."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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