Teen Prostitution No Longer A Crime

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(Memphis 02/19/2012)

News Channel 3 exposes the deep dark life some Mid-South teens are living.

Memphis police say they’ve found children as young as 14, selling their bodies to survive.

If they were caught, until recently they would have been taken to juvenile court.

Now, what they’re doing is no longer considered a crime.

“For everybody that’s a female out on these streets, I expect they do what they gonna really do. If you going to sell your body, whatever you going to do,” said Leedora Mckinley, 18-years-old.

Leedora Mckinley, a runaway from foster care, is now 18 and says these streets have been home for a while.

I asked, “How young did you start?”

She said, “I was 15 when I did that.”

Leedora says she was 15 years-old when the boyfriend, almost twice her age, suggested the plan to make money.

“We were going together. He wanted me to do it. I was scared,” said Leedora.

She added, “I got used to it and I always brought the money back to him and he always split it with me.”

Leedora’s story is a familiar one at Shelby County Juvenile Court but now teens like her but who have not reached their 18th birthday can no longer be arrested.

“You can’t charge a child with prostitution anymore,” said Barry Mitchell, Shelby Co. Juvenile Court.

A new human trafficking law in Tennessee considers them victims.

It targets the adults who lure them into a life of prostitution.

“These girls that are 13 years old don’t turn around and say you know I think tomorrow I’m going to be a prostitute,” said Lt. Wilton Cleveland, MPD Sex Crimes Investigator.

Trafficking children for sex is the fastest growing illegal activity in the country.

It’s second only to the sale of illegal firearms.

The state studied teenage prostitution and statewide found 4,000 cases in two years.

The study led to new legislation. Those who force children into this lifestyle can now be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

I asked Lt. Cleveland if he believed the extra time those caught trafficking teens now face has made a difference in the number of cases.

He said, “I wouldn’t say, yet.”

Law enforcement hopes more positive effects show soon.

In the meantime, we wanted to know what happened teens like Leedora.

Lt. Cleveland said, “That’s the one place where I think the community is trying to come together and they’re different non-government organizations that are going to address that.”

Before the change in the law, teens arrested for prostitution would be closely monitored by juvenile court employees.

However, unless they’re caught committing other crimes, when police catch them now they’re taken back home to mothers like, Trevonne Jones of Southwest Memphis.

Jones said, “They called me about 3 o’clock in the morning and said they had her locked up because they got her for prostitution. I didn’t even know the girl was out of town,” said Jones.

Jones’ 17-year-old daughter came home only to run away again.

She was arrested again. This time officers found drugs.

The teen asked the judge if she could go to foster care instead of going home.

She told the judge she had to feed herself.

Her mother denied that when I asked her about it.

“No, ma’am. We got plenty of food in this house. She just wants to be grown. Run the streets, constantly getting into all kinds of trouble,” said Jones.

Back to Leedora, now since she’s 18, prostitution can land her in jail but she’s counting on street smarts to stay out of trouble.

She said, “Shoot you like me. I like money. It’s just the way you gotta do things.”

The On Your Side Investigators are connecting Leedora with organizations that can help her if she wants it.

For teens and adults who are being forced into prostitution, call the Human Trafficking Hotline for help.

That number is 1-855-558-6484.