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California Democrats cut proposed penalties for child prostitution buyers

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(The Center Square) – The California Senate passed a bill strengthening penalties for child sex trafficking after Democrats added a clause making purchasing sex from 16- and 17-year-olds a misdemeanor and making buying sex from children 15 years or younger a “wobbler” that cannot include prison time.

A “wobbler” is a crime that can be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor in California.

Under existing California law, many crimes regarding purchasing sex from children are misdemeanors, with felony charges only available for cases involving minors 14 or under, or use of force. SB 1414, authored by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, originally would have made attempted or successful solicitation of sex with a minor for money a felony with a prison sentence ranging from 2 to 4 years, a fine not exceeding $25,000, and registration as a sex offender. The bill would punish all those who solicit from a child, regardless of whether or not the person knew or reasonably should have known that the person solicited was a minor.

In the California Senate Public Safety Committee, the Democratic majority added a series of amendments to SB 1414 against Grove’s objections. These amendments made buying sex from 16- and 17-year-olds only punishable as a misdemeanor, and from 15 years and younger a “wobbler” — with two days of jail and/or a fine as punishment for a misdemeanor, and jail time but no prison time as a felony. The amendments also give judges the option to eliminate the minimum mandatory two days of jail, remove punishment for those who did not know and could not reasonably have known the solicited child was a minor, makes the felony charge only punishable with jail, not prison time, and no longer require first-time offenders to register as sex offenders.

The bill, which passed unanimously on the Senate floor, now goes to the State Assembly.

“The crime of purchasing a child, of any age, for sex in the state of California should be a prison felony,” said Grove in a news release. “We must restore this bill in the Assembly to protect every child in the state of California from the horrific crime of sex trafficking.”

The bill is opposed by the ACLU and the California Public Defenders Association, which registered formal opposition to the most recent version of the bill. The ACLU also opposed Grove’s SB 14 from the prior legislative year, a bill signed into law that made trafficking children a serious crime eligible for the state’s three-strikes law.

In testimony against the unamended version of the bill, Caldwell Houston of the CPDA said, “Youth brain development is critical in part here because of the focus on such young people, and we know that through the science that a youth brain is not even really developed by 25. It would be unfortunate and wrong to force those young people to prison and to sex registry,” which suggests that younger adults should not be held to the same criminal standard as older adults.

This argument was reflected in one of the adopted amendments, under which only perpetrators with a previous conviction from purchasing sex from a child 15 or younger and with over a 10-year age gap to the victim must register as a sex offender, meaning a 25-year-old could purchase sex from 15-year-olds without registering as a sex offender.

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