JEFFERSON CITY — Age would become a more prominent factor in cases involving prostitution and penalties would become more severe for abusers in proposed legislation aimed at protecting minors.
SB 341, sponsored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, would prevent minors from being charged and prosecuted for engaging in prostitution. In addition, the bill would establish stricter repercussions for patrons of prostitution with minors.
"It’s being tough on crime, not tough on the victim," Nasheed said during a Monday hearing at the Capitol.
If found patronizing prostitutes aged 15 to 17, a person would be charged with a Class E felony rather than a Class A misdemeanor, raising the possibility of jail time from less than a year to a maximum of four years. If the prostitute is 14 years old or younger, the person's offense will be raised from a Class E to a Class D felony, allowing up to seven years of jail time.
The bill would require any person caught engaging with a prostitute under the age of 18 to register as a sex offender.
Representatives from the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies and the Missouri Children's Leadership Council testified in support of the bill, with no one testifying in opposition.
Nasheed said the average age of children sold into sex trafficking is between the ages of 11 to 14, according to the FBI.
Nasheed said she hopes the increased punishment will serve as a deterrent for sexual predators.
"If we cannot take care of our seniors and our youth, then I don't know why we're here," Nasheed said. "My goal is to be a voice for the voiceless. And many of those young folks who are out there on the street being prostituted, they cannot speak for themselves on a state level in terms of what penalties should occur as a result of those that are patronizing."
Nasheed said that because the bill focuses on a bipartisan issue and that sex trafficking is happening "in our backyard," she expects the bill to pass this year. Nasheed is also the sponsor of SB 344, which would expunge the criminal records of people convicted of prostitution who worked under an agent.
Also during Monday's hearing, committee members considered SB 352, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. The bill would eliminate the statute of limitations on prosecutions in cases of child abuse and neglect. The bill would remove limitations on certain acts of child abuse that prevent prosecution after three years have passed. In addition, in some cases of sexual abuse, the law would remove the requirement that a person who was 18 or younger at the time of the incident must press charges within 30 years of adulthood.
In 2015 and 2016, Sifton has proposed similar bills, but those also eliminated statutes of limitations of civil actions in addition to criminal ones. Those bills didn't pass, and Sifton said he believed that in the interest of getting things done, it was best to frame the legislation through the lens of law enforcement.
"I think last year (the judiciary committee) heard upwards of 100 bills, and they're just not all going to make it out," Sifton said. "This is one that we're going to continue to refine as necessary, and I think we're already closer than we were last year."
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, questioned grouping child abuse and neglect with rape and sodomy, as the proposed bill does. He said comparing the two seems like "a large jump."
Sifton said he will work with Emery to address his concerns.
Emery also asked Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson, who testified on behalf of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in support of the bill, if eliminating the length of time to pursue prosecutions would result in more false convictions.
Richardson said it would not, and that, regardless of the presence of a statute of limitations, there is always a concern to "get it right" when it comes to arrest and prosecution of the offender.
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, also expressed concern over protecting the rights of those accused.
"Especially nowadays where sometimes the abuse is memorialized with video or photographic evidence, it would make (less) sense to let a perpetrator go free because of the expiration of an arbitrary period of time, but you know again, I think we do have to keep in mind the rights of the accused at the same time," Onder said.
Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst, testified in support of the bill and said she felt it was long overdue. Schenkhof said children's lack of knowledge about sex often makes the disclosure process complicated if they are a victim of abuse.
"Children aren't sexual creatures. They don't understand sex, so when you ask a child to talk about sexual things, they often have an inability to even articulate what happened to them," Schenkhof said. "They tend to say it in a much more roundabout way: I don't like Uncle John."
A representative of the Missouri Children's Leadership Council also testified in support of the bill, and there was no testimony in opposition.
"We need to do what we can to protect kids, and we know that these crimes are underreported," Sifton said. "It's just important to give prosecutors the tools they need to bring people who would abuse children to justice."
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.