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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2011 at 9:32 AM

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New Washington law increases punishment for pimps

Shacon Barbee is a Level 3 sex offender.

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE —

Shacon Barbee is a Level 3 sex offender.

Andrew Lagerquist is accused of stabbing an elderly man to death.

Anthony Terry was in jail and Tim McMillon Jr. was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet when they allegedly committed new crimes.

The men are all awaiting trial in King County Superior Court on charges they prostituted teen girls and took the money the girls made walking the streets or selling sex through online ads.

They're also among a growing number of Seattle-area men facing longer prison sentences thanks to new legislation that went into effect last June.

Under the new law, promoting the commercial sexual abuse of a minor is now a Class A felony - a charge that is equivalent to first-degree rape or first-degree assault. The charge is now punishable by a prison sentence of seven to 10 years, up from roughly two.

The same legislation also increased penalties for men who pay for sex with underage prostitutes, increasing the maximum 90-day jail terms for first-time offenders to roughly two-year prison sentences, and thousands of dollars in new court fines.

In September, Bellevue real estate agent Michael Hayatsu became the first person in King County to be charged with commercial sex abuse of a minor under the enhanced law, which also requires those convicted of selling and buying minors to register as a sex offenders for 15 years after they serve their time.

In another first, King County prosecutors charged three men last week in a case involving a 16-year-old Seattle girl. Sharmaarke "Jamal" Abdilahi and Yusef "Prince" Yusuf, both 22, are accused of forcing the girl into prostitution, while Corey Guy Wight, of Bellevue - a 55-year-old engineer with the state Department of Transportation - is accused of paying $400 to have sex with the teen. The three men are expected to stand trial together, in a case prosecutors plan to use to demonstrate how pimps and johns conspire to sexually exploit children.

"Our hammer got weightier," said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Sean O'Donnell, who estimated that his office files roughly 40 cases a year against alleged pimps who profit from the sale of women and girls.

With the enhanced penalties, Washington has become "a national leader when it comes to punishment for pimps and punishment for johns," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell's boss, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said local police agencies, particularly the Seattle Police Department, have increasingly made it a priority to investigate cases involving prostituted youth.

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"For way too long, we've undervalued this crime and the long-term damage to teenagers caught up in it ... . For too long, we haven't done enough to increase the risk a customer might face in seeking an underage prostitute," Satterberg said. "The police have made good cases for us to take to court and we're more than happy to prosecute violent pimps and customers."

The change in law - and its increasing use in Washington courts - is evidence of a fundamental shift in the way police, prosecutors and politicians across the country view victims of the domestic sex trade and the people who abuse them.

But the child-victims of prostitution still lack adequate shelters and services to help them heal and rebuild their lives.

No one knows exactly how many American children are lured into prostitution - usually by pimps who promise love and spin stories of glamour and riches - because a national study has never been conducted. But an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 kids, most of them girls, are forced to sell their bodies a number of times a day, according to a new book by investigative reporter, Julian Sher.

"The numbers are terrifying," he said in a phone interview.

Prostitution represents "a horrible nexus of sex and money," said Sher, whose book, "Somebody's Daughter: The Hidden Story of America's Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them," provides a comprehensive look at child-sex trafficking in the U.S.

Girls and women are often blamed for their own victimization - while pimps are idolized in pop culture and johns usually face light sentences, Sher said.

"Johns get off with a little rap on the knuckles. Pimps are businessmen. They only put a 14-year-old girl on the streets because there's some middle-class guy willing to pay for sex with a 14-year-old," Sher said.

As states such as Washington and New York are getting tougher on perpetrators, a federal bill is now making its way through Congress "to give more teeth" to anti-trafficking laws, he said.

While awareness is growing and communities are taking steps to help girls and women escape the violence, trauma and shame of prostitution, there are few services for juveniles and even fewer for adults nationwide.

When Seattle's new residential-recovery program for prostituted youth, The Bridge, opened in the summer, it became one of only a handful of such programs across the country, which combined have about 50 beds for underage girls. The Seattle program, with capacity for nine girls, already has a waiting list.

In contrast, the estimated 15,000 victims of foreign sex trafficking - girls and women brought to this country from say, Asia or Central America - are offered a slew of services, including transitional housing, education and legal help, from various nonprofit organizations.

"If you're a foreign victim, I can get you all sorts of services," said Lt. Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department's Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. "Our biggest frustration" is finding help for American-born children to break free from the controlling grasp of their pimps.

Space at The Bridge is limited given the need, Sano said. That leaves police with just three other options for girls detained during prostitution investigations.

"We can send them home, but that's often not the best solution. We can take them to Spruce Street," a temporary residential crisis center for juveniles, "but it's unsecured so the kids can walk in the front door and out the back. Or we can take them to the (King County) Youth Services Center and put them in lock up," Sano said.

A 2008 study commissioned by the city of Seattle estimated that 300 to 500 teens were involved in prostitution in King County. But Sano and Sgt. Ryan Long say those numbers are conservative at best.

"Ninety percent of our caseload is pimps and kids," Long said.

Last year, detectives in Sano and Long's unit recovered 80 prostituted youths, up from 40 in 2009, 30 in 2008 and 20 in 2007.

"The pimping of kids is a very extreme form of domestic violence," and girls usually are seduced into the life by pimps offering love and protection, Long said. "It almost always begins with a fraudulent, romantic encounter."

Sano compared the current landscape for prostituted youth with the mid-1990s, when domestic violence became a criminal matter instead of a private one.

"Domestic violence from that time evolved into a national movement and that's what I want to see happen with domestic sex trafficking, to the point that everyone understands these are victims," Sano said. "We're in the infancy stage."

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Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com

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