Definition of “Masking Crimes” Holds Up Penn. Safe Harbor Law

SP2 Logo Tagline 1 Final BlackLate last year, Pennsylvania’s latest attempt to serve children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The reason, according to advocates, is not so much about a dearth of political will, but rather the fear that the law will provide blanket immunity to minors engaging in crimes not related to being exploited.

Introduced in May by Pennsylvania Sens. Stewart Greenleaf and Daylin Leach, Senate Bill 851, also known as Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth, would effectively immunize child victims of human trafficking from criminal prosecution for crimes committed as a direct result of their experience. While twenty-eight states have passed similar laws, Pennsylvania’s was referred to the Appropriations Committee in November and has not yet been voted on. Despite the delay, supporters of the bill claim it has not been neglected. Instead, clarifying confusing language referring to the six “masking crimes” cited in the bill has been quoted as the cause of the delay.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE), a type of human trafficking, “involves crimes of a sexual nature committed against juvenile victims for financial or other economic reasons,” according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The most common types of commercial sexual exploitation are sex trafficking, child pornography and child sex tourism, according to the Women’s Support Project.

The number of children who are victims of CSE in the United States varies by studies, as this is a difficult population to track. In 2011, the Department of Justice found 82 percent of all suspected trafficking incidents from 2008 to 2010 were categorized as sex trafficking. These numbers included more than 1,000 reported incidents of sex trafficking including minor children.

To combat human trafficking in the United States, the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, and has been reauthorized by Congress four times. The most recent reauthorization, which was part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, includes a section focusing on sex trafficking of minors, and automatically considers any sex act including a minor child sex trafficking.

On the state level, various legal protections are afforded to victims of commercial sexual exploitation through safe harbor laws. Decriminalization under these laws allows victims to avoid arrest and prosecution for crimes committed as a direct result of their experience. They focus on rescuing and protecting minors who have been sexually exploited, diverting them from the juvenile justice system, and offering specialized treatment and services, oftentimes through the collaboration with the child welfare system.

While the fact that SB 851 has been pending with the Appropriations Committee for three months might lead one to believe Pennsylvania’s own safe harbor law has been unnecessarily delayed, advocates for the bill believe otherwise.

The Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova Law School is the lead advocate for SB 851, which entails serving as the entity that publicly supports this policy. Director Shea Rhodes has been intimately involved with the crafting of the bill.

Rhodes said that both the budget impasse, a record-long stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the state Congress that has delayed funding for schools, hospitals, prisons and other state funded agencies since June, and confusing language are reasons for the delay.

Agreeing with Rhodes, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) said, “I would concur to say the budget situation is having impact not only on this bill, but on everything that is going on in the legislature. It’s largely sucked the oxygen out of the room.”

But beyond the budget issue, Rhodes said that the language of the last paragraph of the bill, which outlines six “masking crimes,” is the major source of debate. Masking crimes are those that hide the trafficking component of criminal activities and which police often charge minors with in order to remove them from dangerous situations. The six included in SB 851 include criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, loitering and prowling at nighttime, obstructing highways and other public passages, presenting false identification to law enforcement, and simple possession of a controlled substance.

“We realized that the offenses listed at the beginning of that paragraph have generated confusion in the sense that the legislation intends to create immunity for any crime a sexually exploited child may have committed, and that is not the intention at all,” Rhodes said.

“If you are a sexually exploited child and engaging in disorderly conduct as a direct result of that exploitation, you should be immune. We intend to change that language to say ‘including but not limited to’. We’re trying to maintain the integrity of law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion.”

Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research who testified in support of SB 851 in 2015, also expressed optimism when questioned about the bill. When asked if she believed the bill had been neglected, she responded, “not at all,” adding that the House of Representatives is currently working on a companion bill, indicating SB851 is indeed moving forward.

“[The delay] is allowing the variety of stakeholders to take a critical look at the legislation and move forward on the piece of legislation that will have the best chance of success,” Wolfe said.

Leach said that it would “just be speculation” to suggest when the bill would be passed, but added that he would like for it to be “sometime this spring”.


Screenshot 2016-02-17 12.01.03Ashleigh Martell Brunsink is a second year MSW candidate at the School of Social Policy and Practice. Brunsink graduated from Johnson University’s School of Business and Public Leadership with a B.S. in Nonprofit Management and Bible in May of 2011. A former foster youth herself, Ashleigh has experience in public speaking at recruiting and fundraising events and has been interviewed for two publications.


This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

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