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San Bernardino D.A. Strengthens Zero-Tolerance Policy on Human Trafficking

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Documentary garners help for teen prostitutes

By BVN Staff

The documentary, “Teenage $ex 4 $ale: Human Trafficking in San Bernardino County,” may not be up for an Oscar but it certainly got the attention of County District Attorney Michael Ramos.

Ramos and 300 invited guests screened the documentary at the Krikorian Premiere Theatre in Redlands Thursday, January 17.

“For some time there has been the misconception that human trafficking is an evil that only happens in faraway countries, but make no mistake, it is happening right here in our own county," Ramos said in a statement.

Today, we have taken significant steps and strengthened existing partnerships to send the message that if you commit this horrendous crime in our county you will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

The 45-minute film written and produced by Christopher Lee, Ramos’ public affairs officer, chronicles the gritty and dangerous life of teen prostitutes as young as 11 or 12 and how pimps usually men younger than 25, recruit the girls from shopping malls, schools and over the Internet.

The documentary served as a springboard for Ramos who announced several changes in the hopes of creating more effective prosecutions of human trafficking crimes as well as changes in the way his office hopes to assist victims. Standing before a packed audience of approximately 300 invited guests, Ramos started by praising the proactive efforts of the San Bernardino County Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) which he helped shape three years ago with the support of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

CASE Coordinator Anne- Michelle Ellis pointed out that commercial sexual exploitation is a problem that affects all ages in all parts of the County.

“It’s important to realize that commercial sexual exploitation affects children in all parts of our County,” Ellis said. “It’s not just the kids from ‘those’ neighborhoods or ‘those’ families. All children are vulnerable, and the biggest vulnerability is their age.”

According to Ellis, the goal of CASE is to coordinate services tailored to the characteristics and circumstances of sexually exploited children, train law enforcement on investigation and detection, educate the public and create awareness to protect children from abuse and exploitation.

"Thanks to the hard work of all our partners involved in CASE we have made significant strides by changing the way we as a legal community look at victims of human trafficking," Ramos said.

"It used to be that victims lured into prostitution were viewed as criminals. Fortunately those perceptions are changing. But like anything, there is always room for improvement."

Since the inception of CASE in 2009, approximately 7,400 law enforcement and community members have been trained about the plight of trafficking in San Bernardino County. CASE team members have also provided services and resources to approximately 75 young people who were victims of sexual exploitation.

But identifying the number of victims is more complex.

One of the difficult aspects of identifying victims of human trafficking is the underground nature of the crime itself fueled in part by the prevalence of the Internet and social media. For example, in 2012, 338 prostitution- related cases were filed in San Bernardino County, the majority of which were the result of proactive sting operations conducted by those agencies with known prostitution tracks in their jurisdiction (San Bernardino, Ontario and Montclair Police Departments). An additional 27 cases involved minors.

Ramos pointed out that this number includes those soliciting sex and those offering sexual services, but it's important to point out that it only denotes those who were caught and subsequently arrested.

The number of pimping cases is even smaller. Last year, 15 cases related to pimping and pandering were filed. The problem is bigger, though, much bigger. The low risks and potential for high profits associated with trafficking are steering criminals away from smuggling drugs and guns, which are generally riskier pursuits.

“If you’ve ever driven down east Baseline Street in San Bernardino for example, you know the problem of teen prostitution is nothing new in the county,” said a woman who saw the documentary trailer on YouTube. “This film merely dramatized their situation and pushes us to act. There’s no excuse not to take off the blinders.”

According to California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who is also featured in the film, domestic and transnational gangs have expanded from trafficking guns and drugs to trafficking human beings. The perpetrators of human trafficking have become more sophisticated and organized, requiring an equally sophisticated law enforcement response to disrupt and dismantle their networks.

“The buying and selling of human beings is seen as a low-risk, high-reward crime,” Attorney General Harris said. “Police officers, prosecutors, victim advocates, and members of the community must work together to change the calculus on human trafficking in California.”

“Simply put from the standpoint of these monsters: Why run drugs and guns which is a one-time deal, when they can use a trafficked victim over and over?” Ramos said. “In the eyes of the traffickers these victims are nothing more than a reusable commodity. This is outright modern day slavery."

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