SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – District Attorney Michael Ramos announced several directives Thursday to strengthen his zero-tolerance policy on Human Trafficking. The announcements took place at Krikorian Premiere Theatres in Redlands following the premiere of a 45-minute documentary aimed at generating awareness about the sexual exploitation of minors in San Bernardino County.
"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," District Attorney Michael Ramos said. "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."
Guests included U.S. Attorney André Birotte; San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner John McMahon; Deputy Special Agent in Charge Jere T. Miles of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Julie Nauman, Executive Officer of the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board (VCGCB); Wayne J. Quint, Jr., Bureau Chief, California Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement ; San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Gary Thomas; Anne-Michelle Ellis, Coordinator of San Bernardino County Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation; Pastor Paula Daniels of Forgotten Children, Inc.; and several other community and governmental leaders.
Last night's 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.
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."
In fact, according to a 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking by Shared Hope International, children exploited through prostitution report they typically are given a quota by their trafficker/pimp of 10 to 15 buyers per night. Utilizing a conservative estimate, a domestic minor sex trafficking victim would be raped by 6,000 buyers during the course of her victimization through prostitution.
Unfortunately, the Internet has made it easier for traffickers to carry out such quotas. What's worse is that, in doing so, they are able to maintain more anonymity than that which is afforded by trafficking/pimping victims on streets like Baseline and Holt Boulevard where police presence is always a factor.
Internet-based trafficking has also made it easier for “Johns,” or those who solicit sex for money. They are now able to simply go online and purchase sexual services from the confines of their home without ever having to leave and risk being caught.
Among the biggest perpetrators of online sex trafficking is Backpage.com, a website owned and operated by New York-based Village Voice Media, which also publishes LA Weekly and OC Weekly. Advertisements for “escorts” can be found for nearly every city in San Bernardino County and they all include girls and boys who are selling sexual services—some of whom are juveniles as young as 13 years old.
Backpage charges one dollar and up for adult services ads, generating upwards of $22 million a year.
In 2011, the National Association of Attorneys General called on Backpage.com to shut down its adult services section. In response, Backpage representatives stated they were and continue to be committed to preventing minors from being posted on their site, although little action has been taken to actually support such assertions.
"If Backpage really cares about victims like they say they do, then they should immediately shut down its escort service section,” Ramos said. “Clearly, they are more concerned with profit over people."
Following the film screening, District Attorney Ramos made several announcements. Effective immediately, the Office of the District Attorney shall work towards and implement the following directives to better combat human trafficking in San Bernardino County:
Effective Immediately: Creation of Human Trafficking Vertical Prosecution Unit within the Office of the District Attorney, comprised of one Deputy District Attorney, one Investigator, and one Victim Advocate Specialist.
Effective Immediately: Implementation of the "Stop-the-John” Project. In an effort to reduce the demand associated with sex trafficking, the District Attorney’s Office will release and post online the names and photographs of those defendants convicted of solicitation in San Bernardino County.
In conjunction with the juvenile justice system, create a Girls Court aimed at providing services and resources to minor victims forced or caught in the life of prostitution.
In conjunction with Dr. Thomas and San Bernardino County Schools provide training and outreach to teachers in regards to mandatory reporting of suspected human trafficking.
Increase focus and training on trends pointing to gangs and the use of human trafficking to fund gang activity.
Develop methods and training with local law enforcement partners to increase effective prosecution of human trafficking cases.
With the support of the Board of Supervisors, publicize the use of the County 211 information line for citizens of San Bernardino County to report suspected human trafficking violations.
Pursue legislative changes at the State level in regards to combatting Human Trafficking.
Encourage local citizens and advertisers, as well as our partners in the media, to become engaged in the fight to stop Village Voice Media which operates Backpage.com.
As the evening came to a close, Ramos noted that up until this point his office has made great strides in bringing to light the atrocities of human trafficking and how it is robbing the innocence of our most vulnerable youth, but that he hopes to pursue further resources for trafficking victims.
"We recently spoke to a young girl who was being trafficked by a pimp on Backpage, and she said, 'What am I going to do? Go home so my dad can molest me again?' It is my hope that by strengthening our federal and state partnerships, as well as those already in place with local law enforcement, non-profit organizations and the faith-based community, that we find sustainable solutions to address the needs of any trafficked victim who one day asks, 'What am I going to do?'"
To learn more about the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, please visit: http://www.sbcountyda.org/ProsecutingCriminals/ProsecutingCriminals/HumanTraffickingProsecutionUnit.aspx
To view an online trailer of the documentary, please visit: