Teen prostitutes and tax dollars


What is the dollar value of saving one adolescent girl from a pimp? What about four, or five or 381? How much are we, as a state, willing or able to pay?

Right now, the answer appears to be “not much.” While the legislature passed the Safe Harbor for Youth Act in 2011, providing that juveniles caught up in the sex trade should be treated as victims, rather than being charged with a crime, the state does not have services for those victims.  A Star Tribune editorial says:

Conventional homeless shelters and foster homes aren’t appropriate settings for them, either. They need more specialized settings that offer treatment for their physical ills and therapy for their mental and emotional ones. They also need to be set on a pathway to a healthy, self-sufficient life.

Today only four homeless shelter beds in the Twin Cities are suited for this mission.  Advocates say at least 50 per night are needed.

Four beds. No matter whose numbers you believe, four beds are not enough. 

The Strib editorial cited a just-released study that did a cost-benefit analysis of providing services for 12-17 year-old victims of sex trafficking. The study is a valiant effort to justify public investment, concluding that there would be a “return on investment to the public sector, of at least 34:1 for early intervention with adolescent girls at risk of sex trading.”

I hope that the study convinces legislators to make the investment, and I am grateful that researchers have quantified and defined the economics of the issue.

We approach the analysis from the narrow perspective of the public budget. That is, both the cost of the program and the specific harms from sex trading are evaluated in terms of the burden they impose on a community’s government expenditures. We do not examine the full social costs of sex trading. (Full Report, p. vi)

At the same time, the study is heart-breaking in its “just the numbers” analysis. The impact on government expenditures of a thirteen-year-old runaway trading sex for shelter seems like the wrong thing to measure — but hurt and heartbreak and psychological damage haven’t moved us to provide more than four beds for these girls. Maybe a return-on-investment analysis will provide an impetus for action. 

A state-wide program that would fulfill the goals of the Safe Harbor for Youth Act will need to consider the following elements: screening of runaway and homeless female youth for their risk of sex trading, including trafficking; referral to specific programs based on the screening; housing of various types as needed. Such a program is not yet in operation in Minnesota. (Executive Summary)

Lots of numbers are thrown around by the many people committed to rescuing girls — our Minnesota children — from sex trafficking. The numbers in the Early Intervention benefit-cost analysis are among the most conservative estimates I’ve seen. The numbers that count most, however, are not in the analysis: How many Minnesota legislators will be willing to fund programs to help the young victims of sex trafficking?