Teenage prostitutes part of Vegas vice

One yesterday and two this morning, Karen Hughes said, matter-of-factly. That makes three in about 24 hours.

Three teenage prostitutes pulled off our streets, she meant.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an anomaly or a police department record. Far from it. This is Las Vegas. It was business as usual.

As head of Metro’s Vice Unit, Lt. Hughes and her small band of investigators pay special emphasis to reported sightings of teenage working girls, most of whom are found in the areas traditionally frequented by street prostitutes. Most of those picked up are high school age. A few are turned out straight from middle school.

Although some national experts estimate the average working prostitute begins selling sex at 13, Metro’s statistics point toward the later teen years. In the case of the three girls picked up this past week, one was 17 and two were 16.

Initial interviews indicated they hadn’t been working long. Fortunately, they probably hadn’t yet been schooled in spotting vice cops by more experienced prostitutes. Hughes credits a focused patrol officer with spotting the signs of loitering and solicitation.

“Typically, the juveniles that we encounter have not been involved in prostitution long,” Hughes says. “They’re not sophisticated. They’re not able to function as a juvenile in an adult world. They’re not self-sufficient.”

They can’t, for instance, book a hotel room or generate fake identification. Because of their age, they will have difficulty working inside most hotel resorts. For most, that means hitting the streets under the eye of a pimp and more experienced prostitutes. And the more they must rely on the pimp, the more difficult it is to pry them from his clutches.

“By not working in the hotels, they have minimal risk for detection for being underage in a gaming establishment,” Hughes says. “In a hotel, they can be stopped by just about anyone if they don’t look over 21 years of age.”

In the shadows of a traditional prostitution stroll on Tropicana Avenue near the Strip, for instance, the odds of detection shift considerably.

Hughes makes use of the tools available.

Her undercover unit has limited resources, but schooling patrol officers to spot trouble is paying off.

“Right now, we’ve got a really high involvement with patrol,” she says. “Even when we can’t police it in an undercover way, patrol has been highly effective.”

The three teenage girls were added to Metro’s files, which indicate that 2,229 minor sex trafficking victims were picked up by police from 1994 to 2012. The youngest was 13, and the average age was 16.

Even those who say that prostitution is a victimless crime can’t credibly argue that teenage prostitution is some benign phenomenon. It stains the soul of this community.

But Hughes knows those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Statistics are just a way of keeping score.

The real story is that these are just girls, kids really, and most of them local. They’re lost in a town that exploits them without much conscience.

Want another tragic truth?

When Metro vice looks for juvenile prostitutes on our streets, they almost always find more.

So when Assembly Bill 67 surfaced at the Legislature earlier this year, the police welcomed it as a way to send a message to pimps that there would be a higher price to pay for running young girls.

The bill, signed into law last week, toughens the penalties for a pandering conviction and redefines underage prostitution as sex trafficking.

The new law is no cure-all, but if the threat of substantially enhanced prison sentences makes pimps think twice before turning out teenagers on the streets of Las Vegas, it will have been well worth the fight.

For her part, Hughes attended the signing ceremony in Carson City. Then she returned to work, where she was again reminded why that law was sorely needed and long overdue.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.