Lawmakers considered a bill on Monday that could send someone who solicits sex with a child under 14 to prison for life — regardless of whether they knew the age of the person involved.
The provision is part of a bill presented by Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
“What we’re talking about is not the solicitation of prostitution; what we’re talking about is the solicitation of rape — the rape of our children,” Hambrick told committee members in a thundering voice. “We must send a message far and wide that our children cannot be rented for a period of time.”
AB280 increases penalties across the board for engaging in or soliciting sex with a prostitute. The younger the prostitute, the higher the penalties.
“We will be judged very harshly by our creator and the victims now that we are aware of these issues if we do nothing,” Hambrick said.
Opponents of the bill argued that the prospect of life imprisonment is too harsh when a defendant may not know the age of someone.
A companion bill by Hambrick — AB241 — focused on improving services for sex-trafficked victims. The measure also creates a statutory presumption that says all children arrested for prostitution or related activities are the victims of sex trafficking and not voluntarily prostituting.
The bill ensures they are treated as victims, not criminals, said Mary Ellison, director of policy at the Polaris Project, a national anti-sex trafficking organization.
Children who are taken into custody for prostitution would be identified as a child in need of supervision rather than as delinquents. They would not be sent to juvenile detention facilities but instead to safe houses for a recovery program established by the state.
New court fees of $500 for soliciting sex with an adult and $2,500 for soliciting sex with a child would be split between the courts and district attorney’s office in the county where the offense occurred to help fund the program. Gifts and federal grants could be accepted as additional funding sources.
Opponents said the presumption that all children that engage in prostitution are trafficking victims is erroneous and shouldn’t be included in Nevada statutes. In addition, they say the bill does not specify the program would be for children, so adults could use it as an avoidance technique for prostitution charges.
Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, and chair of the committee, said the bill may be premature if there are not safe houses available.
Safe houses are in the early stages of development in the northern and southern ends of the state, according to Chief Deputy Attorney General Michon Martin.
She added the bill is “just one more piece in our holistic approach to dealing with this problem and I think it is a very important piece.”