- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - A prominent Republican lawmaker wants child victims of human trafficking to be immune from prosecution in Georgia, building on the state’s 2011 crackdown on prostitution and other sexual crimes.

State Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford pre-filed the legislation on Thursday before joining about 50 supporters for a candlelight vigil for victims of sex trafficking at an Atlanta church. Unterman said she’s working with prosecutors and other groups to line up support for the bill.

Supporters said they expect claims from some opponents that the bill legalizes child prostitution - an argument that has killed similar legislation in recent years.

Jennifer Swain, executive director of youthSpark, said prosecuting a victim serves no purpose. The organization works with at-risk girls and teenagers in Fulton County and intervenes to prevent them from becoming victims of child prostitution, she said.

“This is just adding another layer of protection so that those victims who have been prostituted are not treated as criminals on any part of their journey,” Swain said.

The bill is paired with a constitutional amendment to create a fund helping children who are victims of trafficking pay for health care, housing and other services. A governor-appointed commission would manage that effort, funded by higher fines against people convicted of sex trafficking and related crimes.

Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said the organization has been in touch with Unterman as she prepared the bill. Spahos said they have no objection to the main objective but want to make sure the bill isn’t too broad.

“The natural presumption that anybody under the age of 18 is not guilty, we will have a problem with that,” he said. “I can show you cases where 16- and 17-year-olds were running prostitution rings.”

The 2011 law allowed victims to avoid criminal charges if they were coerced into prostitution or other sexual crimes. Unterman’s bill goes a step further, giving immunity to anyone younger than 18 from prosecution for sex crimes in connection with human trafficking.

“We are going after the pimps, we are going after the johns,” she said. “This bill increases that penalty, increases the fine, and goes after forfeiture procedures. We are punishing the real criminals.”

The legislative session begins Jan. 12.

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