Young Nevada girls are too easily targeted by male predators

A painful truth is often overlooked when the issue of prostitution is discussed.

I was reminded of that truth after writing a column about the slaying of 21-year-old Alicia Lee. She was beaten to death on Oct. 8, 2010, in an Arville Street apartment. Her official cause of death was “multiple blunt force injuries, with a significant contributing condition of asphyxiation,” according to the Clark County coroner’s office.

Lee was a prostitute. Her pimp, Marshall Greene, is charged with her slaying and in 2010 made a voluntary statement to police admitting the brutal killing. His trial is set for this summer in District Court. The column generated a number of responses, one from a relative of Lee.

“I want to thank you for your story on Alicia Lee,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “You’re right. She was a prostitute. But please remember, she wasn’t a prostitute until she met him.”

There’s the awful reality.

“She wasn’t a prostitute until she met him.”

Authorities know most prostitutes enter the sex trade as teenagers. Metro Vice Unit detectives regularly interview women who began turning tricks as girls — sometimes very young girls. By the time they’re adults, society generally doesn’t consider them victims or trafficked sex workers, but hookers who have consciously chosen a career path. As if the nursing and education classes were full at the community college, so they majored in prostitution instead.

It’s strange how society works. If a smooth-talking telemarketer befriends your grandmother and cons her out of thousands of dollars, she’s a victim of fraud. If a charming panderer uses promises of love and a flashy lifestyle to con a young woman into selling her body for money, most of which she never sees, there’s no fraud charge. But what if she wasn’t a prostitute until she met him?

As it steers down the metaphorically winding streets of a community that hyper-promotes sex but has made its sale illegal, Metro Vice keeps meticulous statistics. From 1994 through 2012, Lt. Karen Hughes and her crew cataloged 2,229 minor sex trafficking victims with the youngest being 13 years old. A strong majority of the girls, 68 percent, were recruited from Nevada. Nearly seven of 10 were African-American.

Not that it should matter, but these aren’t girls from some other community. These are our daughters, our sisters.

Passing a tough law won’t solve this complex issue, but it will deliver a long-overdue message to those who would exploit children in the name of commerce. As structured, AB67 redefines pandering in terms of sex trafficking: inducing a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion. It includes any pandering act involving a teenager. For pimps, it considerably raises the stakes of the game.

In addition to facing the likelihood of increased penalties and mandatory restitution, those convicted under the new statute would be required to register as sex offenders and have their assets seized.

Although its critics complained AB67 goes too far, no citizen with a scintilla of conscience should be content with the status quo. With a few notable exceptions, the local legal system has been known as a revolving door for even some of the most abusive pimps in our community. For example, by the time Greene is alleged to have murdered Lee, he already had broken her ankle in a previous assault.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto spearheaded the legislation in cooperation with the National Association of Attorney Generals’ Human Trafficking Committee, the American Bar Association Human Trafficking Task Force, and the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force. On Thursday, Gov. Brian Sandoval is scheduled to sign the bill into law in a public ceremony.

Although the issue is a hot one in the media these days and finds no shortage of political and law enforcement support, sex trafficking is an especially complex topic in Las Vegas. Nevada in general appears hopelessly conflicted. The activity is quietly legal in some counties and celebrated but illegal in Clark County.

The passage of AB67 is a reminder that we are still capable of facing an uncomfortable truth and embracing change.

“She wasn’t a prostitute until she met him.”

May we never forget those haunting words.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.