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From Villain to Victim: The impact of Safe Harbor Laws on Minors Involved in Commercial Sexual Exploitation

NCJ Number
Criminology & Public Policy Volume: 19 Issue: 2 Dated: 2020 Pages: 389-408
Stephen V. Gies; Eoin Healy; Brandn Green; Amanda Bobnis
Date Published
20 pages

This study used a quasi-experimental design to compare prostitution-related crime and sex abuse maltreatment trends at the county level in states that have implemented “safe harbor laws” with a comparison group of counties in states that have not implemented safe harbor laws.


Safe harbor laws are designed to redirect young victims of commercial sexual exploitation away from justice system involvement by prohibiting their arrest and prosecution as criminals. In the current study, Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) were used to measure prostitution-related crime trends, and data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) were used to measure sex abuse maltreatment trends. A multilevel Poisson regression model was used to analyze the change in prostitution-related crime and sex abuse maltreatment trends in treatment and comparison counties over an 11-year observation period (2005–15). The study found a decline in the number of overall and juvenile arrests across all prostitution-related offenses, which suggests that safe harbor laws were effective in redirecting young victims away from system involvement; however, the systematic provision of treatment services envisioned for these young victims has, to date, not been realized. Still, these findings provide evidence to guide effective policymaking regarding the treatment of young victims of commercial sexual exploitation. (publisher abstract modified)