Earlier this year at a Days Inn in Roseville, a hotel employee was suspicious about activity in one of the rooms. The employee went online and learned that the man staying in the room had placed Internet ads for "traveling escorts.''
She called authorities, and 39-year-old Samuel Cozart of Columbia Heights was arrested, convicted and sent to jail -- in part because of testimony from a teenage girl who worked for him. Were it not for the alert hotel employee, the teenager might still be in the clutches of a pimp.
The case illustrates why an effort to educate hotel and motel employees about teen prostitution is on target. If more hospitality workers pay attention and report suspicious activity, more pimps will be caught and sent to jail. And it's more likely that their victims -- underage girls and young women -- can be saved from lives in the sex-for-money business.
Last week, a coalition of officials from local law enforcement and the hospitality industry met to learn more about the issue and provide training for hospitality employees. A guidebook with tips on how to identify sex trafficking was distributed, and experts shared information about prostitution of girls and young women. A women's human-rights advocate, for example, told the group that the average age of a child who enters prostitution is 12 to 14.
These are children who could be anyone's daughter, from any part of the state, who have been forced into selling their bodies. And their exploitation is a major problem not just here, but across the country. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 100,000 children are exploited each year for prostitution in the United States.
Locally, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, whose office handled the Roseville case, now prosecutes seven to 10 prostitution cases a year involving underage girls. Choi is leading the effort to involve hotels and motels in fighting sex trafficking.
It's essential to have the cooperation of the hotels and motels where pimps and traffickers are most likely to set up shop. Cops making arrests at those locations can find smartphones, computers, sex paraphernalia and other evidence that is crucial for conviction.
Yet this is a problem that should be attacked on many fronts. There are other points for intervention in the process that can turn a runaway 13-year-old into a sex trade victim.
More can be done to address the demand end of the problem. Pimps, and ultimately the customers/johns, are the reason this issue persists. And identifying and counseling young girls who are at risk for getting caught up in this crime could help with prevention.
Minnesota has been at the forefront in working to prevent crimes against women, including battering and prostitution. In 2009, the Legislature strengthened the state's sex-trafficking laws by increasing penalties and categorizing trafficking as a "crime of violence.''
And last year, county prosecutors from across the Twin Cities changed their policies to treat juvenile prostitutes as victims instead of criminals. "Safe Harbor" legislation expanded that concept statewide and increased the fines on johns to create funding for support and treatment services for victims.
Combined, these initiatives will help protect more girls and women -- and lead to prosecution of those who abuse and exploit them.
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