- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Los Angeles County district attorney said Wednesday she was launching a program to keep young victims of sex trafficking from being prosecuted for engaging in prostitution.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said minors engaging in sex for pay will be viewed as victims, not criminals, under the “First Step” diversion program.

“These are victims that have been robbed of hope at a very early age,” Lacey told a news conference. “We want to show them there is a way out if they take the first step.”

Lacey said the greatest challenge for victims is breaking away from pimps and abusers.

“Once you get into the lifestyle, it’s hard to get away,” she said.

The county’s interim sheriff, John Scott, said, “We will have arrests made but handled in a different way. “

Lacey said a coalition of community groups will offer young arrestees a one-year program of crisis intervention services including shelter, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and education.

If they successfully complete the program, their arrest will be cleared. Lacey said most victims are girls, and a smaller number are boys.

Appearing with Lacey were representatives of four nonprofit community groups that are partners in the program - the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, Saving Innocence and the Valley Trauma Center of Van Nuys.

Police, sheriff’s deputies and probation departments will be involved as well as the Department of Children and Family Services.

The program is being launched in Sylmar and Compton which have had a large number of arrests.

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