By April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Georgia House took aim at those who prostitute children on Wednesday, overwhelmingly agreeing to make it easier to go after pimps and others who exploit minors for sex.
House Bill 200 also would significantly increase the penalties for the crime of human trafficking and sexual servitude, bringing them in line with those for drug trafficking.
It passed the House with bipartisan support, 168-1. The lone dissenter, Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, said he objected only because of constitutional questions about how many features the bill contained. He said he did not oppose the bill’s goals.
House members applauded themselves after the vote.
“Passage of this bill sends a strong message: ‘Not in our Georgia,’ ” said Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, the bill’s sponsor.
The approval comes just a year after legislators let a bill designed to help children trapped as sexual slaves die over concerns it would legalize prostitution for children under 16 by treating them as victims instead of criminals. Georgia’s age of consent is 16.
This year’s measure would still treat sex slaves as victims by offering them a way to come forward to help law enforcement agencies go after their traffickers.
The proposal also would expand coercion to include, in addition to physical force, causing or threatening financial harm and employing drug use as leverage. It also would prohibit defense by blood relation — such as if a father “sold” a daughter — and the victim’s past sexual history without review by a judge.
Offenders would face up to 20 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines for victims between ages 16 and 18 For those victims under 16, offenders would face up to 30 years in prison and fines up to $100,000. The state could also seize any assets used for or bought with proceeds of the crime.
Lindsey, a Republican from Atlanta, fashioned the bill with help from Democrats and, among others, Attorney General Sam Olens, the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and the Juvenile Justice Fund.
The fund has worked for at least three years to tackle the issue of underage prostitution, noting that more than 28,000 men in Georgia have sex with prostituted adolescent girls every year.
Nonprofit groups and prosecutors were instrumental in including a provision in the bill that would require law enforcement agencies to receive training on the issue, including how to interact with victims.
Officials estimate hundreds if not thousands of children and others are being held as sex slaves in Atlanta, which has one of the worst reputations for the crime in the country.
“Right now there are hundreds of girls in Atlanta and across the metro region who are in hotel rooms, waiting to be purchased by men on the Internet for sexual purposes,” said Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville. “That’s who this bill is for.”