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Prosecutor: 'We need to talk about demand' to curb trafficking

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Washington state prosecutor on Monday told a Florida panel charged with fighting human trafficking that it must crack down on men who seek to buy sex from prostitutes.

Val Richey, a senior prosecutor in King County, Wash., told the legislative committee of the Florida Statewide Council on Human Trafficking that his jurisdiction -- which includes Seattle -- vigorously prosecutes buyers and pimps.

"How do you expect to uproot a tree when all you're doing is ripping at the leaves?" Richey, appearing by video, asked the panel. "If we really want to end commercial exploitation, then we need to talk about demand."

The prosecutor said his office had changed its approach to sex trafficking after studying the characteristics of pimps, buyers and victims in King County, which has a population of about 2 million.

The buyers were overwhelmingly white -- 79 percent -- and upper class, Richey said. The victims were overwhelmingly poor and members of a minority, and many lived on the street. Many had been sexually abused before they were trafficked. Many had mental illnesses.

"This crime just disproportionately hammers these vulnerable communities," Richey said.

But prosecutors also found that prostitutes were being arrested at 25 or 50 times the rate of buyers. That raised ethical and moral questions, Richey said -- and it also didn't work.

"I don't know anybody, anywhere in the country, who feels that they have a grip on the problem of trafficking," he said. "We're all doing our best, we're all coming up with innovative responses --- but nobody's got it under control."

Richey said the demand is vast, with tens of thousands of men buying sex and 100 websites selling it in his jurisdiction alone. Prosecutors quickly found that taking pimps off the streets didn't affect demand.

"Traffickers, like drug dealers, are not deterred by other traffickers getting prosecuted," Richey said. "They're enabled. And that really taught us something about what our focus needed to be. And that, namely, was the buyer."

In 2015, no King County juveniles were arrested for prostitution, down from 50 in 2009. But during that time, 140 men who bought sex from minors were prosecuted.

Buyers who are sentenced in King County must participate in a 10-week program called "Stopping Sexual Exploitation." They have to pay for it, Richey said, and the money goes straight to victim services.

Additionally, men in the program learn about the high rate of violence against prostitutes by buyers, not just pimps and traffickers. Richey said 73 percent of prostitutes in his jurisdiction had been physically assaulted, 64 percent to 83 percent had been threatened with weapons, and 53 percent to 62 percent had been raped. Nearly 80 percent want out of the life.

Richey also noted that the peak time for buyers to solicit sex is 2 p.m. -- usually from work, setting up dates for after work. Some even have sex on the grounds of their workplace. That's why 18 King County businesses with 125,000 employees are collaborating with prosecutors in cracking down on buyers of sex.

"They do not want the liability," Richey said. "They do not want the loss of productivity."

After Richey's presentation, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said it was the most comprehensive he'd ever seen on the subject.

"We've got to get upstream on the demand for this," he said.