Federal investigators working to undermine sex trafficking across the country have long targeted pimps and prostitutes in their prosecutions, overlooking the purchasers of sex for reasons of efficiency. That may be changing. John F. Wood, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, has filed charges against three buyers under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal statute carrying heavy penalties. The move represents the first time since the statute's passing in 2000 that federal authorities have used it to try "johns."
"We are aggressively responding to an alarming market for child prostitution by attacking this issue on all fronts," Wood said. "We are prosecuting those who coerce children into prostitution, as well as their customers who create the demand for child sex trafficking."
That new approach plays like smooth jazz in the ears of Linda Smith, founder and director of Shared Hope International (See "Shame of the Cites," WORLD, Feb. 28, 2009). The former congresswoman has insisted for several years that stiff prosecutions of men who purchase minors for sex are as critical to undermine the industry as cases against pimps: "This is very important, because it means that instead of a slap on the wrist or 'john school' or a fine, these men will be treated as the criminals they are for buying a slave. This is only the beginning."
Indeed, the latest round of Operation Cross Country, an FBI initiative aimed at liberating children from sexual slavery, included arrests of numerous buyers as well as pimps. In Oregon, law enforcement officials picked up six pimps and three johns in an effort that liberated seven child sex slaves. Similar action in 29 cities across the country resulted in the freeing of 48 minors and arrests of 571 buyers and sellers. Smith estimates that many dozens of johns are included in that number, though the FBI has yet to parse the figures officially.
The trick now: convictions. The federal Trafficking Act includes language making it criminal to "recruit, entice, transport or obtain" minors for commercial sex acts. Prosecutors have never before attempted to extend that language to purchasers. Smith argues that the word "obtain" should apply to both buyers and sellers. And she believes federal authorities have all the evidence necessary for successful cases: "You did surveillance for days. You collected everything you need. You swooped in there. You have the pictures of these customers. Now, go after them."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Cordes in Missouri is prepared to oblige. She will try the cases against Steven E. Mikoloyck, 47; Ryan S. Doerr, 33; and Jimmy "Steven" Johnson, 22, for attempting to obtain minors for sex. Convictions would require a minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison without parole and could carry a maximum penalty of life without parole-a far cry from john school.