Pimps selling child prostitutes and the johns who buy them can rest easy knowing that Republican Eddie Farnsworth is chair of the state House Judiciary Committee.
Despite broad support from both Republicans and Democrats, Farnsworth refused to allow a hearing on House Bill 2569,which would have closed a legal loophole for those selling teenagers for sex, increasing the sentencing range upon conviction, from seven to 21 years up to 13 to 27 years for a first offense.
The bill was the result of a joint task force chaired by Republican Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat. During several meetings, stakeholders discussed how to combat the problem of child sex trafficking in our state, which has received low marks on the subject from advocacy groups.
Jodi Liggett, a senior policy adviser to Mayor Stanton, explained there is a range of things that can be done to address the problem.
However, the one thing everyone on the task force could agree on was closing the aforementioned loophole, which treats the selling and buying children under 15 for sex differently than when the victim is 15 to 17 years old.
"There are pretty stiff penalties if you're soliciting or selling someone under the age of 15," Liggett told me. "But if the victim is 15, 16 or 17, relatively speaking, it's a slap on the wrist. So we wanted to wipe that out."
She said the joint task force included prosecutors, researchers, academics, and cops from the Phoenix Police Department's vice squad.
"We had everybody and their cousin on that joint committee," Liggett said. "And we reached a consensus that closing this loophole would be a good first step for Phoenix and Arizona to take, making it a more hostile environment here for traffickers."
Indeed, Shared Hope, an international advocacy group opposed to child sex trafficking issued a 2012 report card for Arizona, giving the state a "C" rating. The organization cited this loophole in the law as one reason for the poor grade.
A close reading of Arizona Revised Statute 13-3212 reveals that if prosecutors cannot prove someone knowingly engaged in prostitution with a minor 15 and up on a first offense, the crime is knocked down to a class six felony. A perpetrator could skate with as little as 90 days in county jail.
Shared Hope has reported that according to crime stats, the average age of a minor forced into prostitution in Phoenix for the first time is 14.83 years, and from 2006 to 2010, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office prosecuted 87 cases involving buyers or sellers of sex with child prostitutes.
Liggett says the Valley's reputation as a sports and entertainment destination is also a concern, as sex trafficking has been known to spike during high-profile sporting events.
The bill essentially would be a tool for prosecutors, according to Liggett, and would send a message to sex trafficking rings that Arizona will not tolerate the sexual exploitation of minors.
Liggett related that the Attorney General's office had its legislative liaison write the bill and recruit a primary sponsor, which ended up being Republican Representative John Allen, who sits on Farnsworth's Judiciary Committee.
Ultimately, the bill racked up 15 GOP representatives as sponsors, including Allen.
But Liggett said Farnsworth shot the bill down, even after the AG's Office compromised with him, and removed language dealing with johns.
"This would have only enhanced penalties for pimps, and we still did not get a hearing," she said. "There's a significant amount of frustration. The sponsor was frustrated. And the advocates and other stakeholders are frustrated."
Even if Farnsworth disagreed with the bill because he felt existing statutes were sufficient, or had concerns about the rights of the accused, why not allow a hearing, at least?
"That's the drum we kept beating: 'Respectfully, most of the Legislature does not agree with you. Let's put it to a vote,'" Liggett complained. "He just wouldn't do that."
As a result, the current bill cannot advance in the House, though there is some hope that someone in the Senate will introduce it as a "striker" amendment, eliminating the language of an existing bill and replacing it with the text of another.
But the clock is ticking. Friday is the last day a Senate committee can review a striker, a spokesperson for the House Dems explained to me. After that, Liggett and other backers likely will have to wait another year.
The riddle is, why would Farnsworth, an ultra-conservative GOPer, be opposed to cracking down further on criminals engaged in such heinous behavior?
In 2011, Republican Representative Doris Goodale attempted to beef up the same law. Her bill was not heard by the committee, even though she, like Allen, sits on it. Farnsworth was the chair in 2011, as well.
Farnsworth did not return my e-mails, phone calls or Facebook message asking for comment.
I'm sure this has absolutely nothing to do with his stubbornness on this issue, but I did notice that Farnsworth has a relative who is a sex offender.
Albert Farnsworth, 31, is the legislator's nephew. He is currently doing 30 years for snatching a 12-year-old girl from the street in 2003, and taking her to a friend's house, where both he and his pal repeatedly raped her.
A piece in the East Valley Tribune at the time, described the horrific circumstances.
"Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said the girl's abductors bound her, covered her head with a bag, took her to a house, and sexually assaulted her four times in an hour," reads the article.
Eddie Farnsworth was House Majority Leader in 2003. He expressed shock at the report of the incident.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the young lady and her family," he told the Tribune. "As a father of seven children, what else can I say?"
Later that year, Albert admitted his guilt in open court as part of a plea deal in which he was sentenced to three decades behind bars.
Granted, his crime was rape and kidnapping, not child prostitution.
And I am not implying that the representative has a soft spot for any criminal, even one in his own family.
But given that this incident occurred, and that Farnsworth cannot help but be aware of the shocking details reported in the media, how can he be so callous as to deny a hearing on a bill that would increase punishment on those who prey on some of society's most vulnerable individuals?
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