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(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly members L. Grace Spencer, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Albert Coutinho and Annette Quijano to protect sexually exploited minors was approved Monday by the Assembly and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

The bill (A-3700-3934) would provide an affirmative defense to any person under 18 who engages in prostitution. An affirmative defense is an explanation for a defendant’s actions that excuses or justifies his behavior. The bill intends to address situations where minors are charged criminally as a result of being a victim of sexual abuse. Currently, a person is afforded an affirmative defense to a charge of prostitution only if the person is a victim of human trafficking.

“This bill strengthens our current laws so that children who have been exploited are not only protected, but will receive the care they need,” said Spencer (D-Essex/Union). “These children fell prey to horrendous circumstances and unscrupulous individuals. We must ensure children who have been sexually exploited are treated as victims and are provided with appropriate services, including shelter, care, counseling and crisis intervention services.”

The bill would also require that care services be provided for sexually exploited juveniles charged with prostitution or juvenile victims of human trafficking. The bill would amend various sections of the current juvenile code to ensure these services are rendered.

“Making a criminal out of an exploited child who was forced into prostitution under tragic circumstances is a complete moral failure,” said Vainieri Huttle (D- Bergen). “Prostitution is not a choice for these children. This bill ensures that these young victims are helped, not hurt even more by being treated as criminals.”

“We rightfully protect children who have been victims of human trafficking and forced into prostitution. Why are we not extending the same level protection to our children here in this country?” asked Coutinho (D- Essex/Union). “These children have been exploited over and over again by adults who failed them; they should not be victimized again by the legal system.”

“Most of these children escaped an abusive environment only to find themselves in another one even worse. Turning them into criminals for unspeakable acts being done to them doesn’t serve justice,” said Quijano (D-Union). “These children were failed by those entrusted with their safety. It is our responsibility to rectify the injustices committed against them.”

The bill was voted 69-1 by the Assembly and 38-0 by the Senate on Monday.