This is hardly new ground for Bob Herbert, having written extensively about the sex trade for quite some time. But this column really underscores how messed up our system is.

But law enforcement does not always respond in a positive or constructive way. It is common across the country for under-age girls engaged in prostitution to be arrested, which is bizarre when you consider that it is a serious crime — statutory rape — for an adult to have sex with a minor.

If no money is involved, the youngster is considered a victim. But if the man pays for the sex — even if the money is going to the pimp, which is so often the case — the child is considered a prostitute and thus subject in many venues to arrest and incarceration.

Messed up doesn't even begin to describe this. It's a national disgrace that victims would be charged in a situation like this instead of treated and given shelter. And the excuse that prosecutors give--that without the threat of jail, these victims won't testify against their pimps and johns--is disgusting. If you don't offer these victims some better options--treatment, safety, security--then they're going to look out for themselves first, and since they're likely to run into these people on the streets again, of course they're not going to testify. They didn't survive by being stupid. You have to offer them a path away from the streets, and you have to get them to trust you--promising to imprison them for being raped isn't the way to build that trust.

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