Richmond Times-Dispatch: Va. crime panel cool to prostitution bills

RICHMOND, Va. – Proposals to lighten up on child prostitutes and people who are forced into prostitution received a cool reception Tuesday from the Virginia State Crime Commission.

The commission took no formal action on the measures, which were held over from the 2013 General Assembly for possible consideration in the next session after further study.

Members lauded the intent of the proposals but expressed some practical concerns. For example, Del. Manoli Loupassi said a bill to decriminalize child prostitution would make it more difficult to arrest and prosecute the child’s pimp. Police often need the cooperation of prostitutes to bring charges against sex traffickers.

“You have to have a way to get the bad guy,” said Loupassi, R-Richmond.

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she introduced the bill because as drug distribution laws become tougher, more street gangs are turning to human trafficking to make money.

“Children are being put through a horrendous experience and being sold for sex,” she said.

However, the commission staff presented Virginia State Police statistics showing that only two of the nearly 4,000 prostitution-related arrests from 2008 through 2012 involved juveniles – a figure that suggests many young prostitutes likely are already being handled by social services rather than law enforcement.

Another bill referred to the commission would allow a conviction to be expunged if it’s later proven the defendant had been forced to work as a prostitute. Commission member Patricia West, a former circuit court judge who now serves as chief deputy attorney general, said it would be a fundamental change in Virginia law to judicially erase convictions of people who are not proven innocent.

West said a better approach would be to allow defendants to assert “an affirmative defense” that they were forced into prostitution. But Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and sponsor of on version of the legislation, suggested that would not help a frightened teenager who is convicted of prostitution and only musters the courage years later to come forward with the story of abduction or coercion.

Ebbin and Del. Vivian Watts, D-Alexandria, said people who are forced into prostitution at a young age should not have to be held back by a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment said that same principle could be applied to others – youngsters forced to become “drug mules,” for example – and said he would be more receptive to a broader look at expungement.

“I have a hard time creating a privileged class,” said Norment, R-James City and chairman of the commission.

The commission also discussed a proposal to allow prosecutors in child sex cases to introduce evidence of previous similar conduct or convictions. Proponents said the goal is to provide juries with relevant and useful information in cases that sometimes boil down to a young victim’s word against the defendant’s.

Commission staff said common law and rules of evidence already allow some carefully carved-out exceptions to the general proposition that a person’s prior convictions can’t be used as evidence in a criminal case, but Democratic Sen. Mark Herring of Loudoun County said his legislation could clarify the issue.

Mary Davey Devoy, an advocate for reform of Virginia’s sex offender laws, said the legislation would inject bias into court proceedings and undermine the fundamental principle that a defendant is presumed innocent.

The commission directed its staff to work on a revised version of the bill for consideration later this year.