Photograph of an FBI agent leading away an adult suspect arrested in the "Operation Cross Country II" Credit: U.S. Department of Justice

Law enforcement agencies across the country are cracking down on pimps who target and sexually exploit minors – including some who are teenagers themselves.

Teen pimps who use high schools as recruiting grounds for prostitutes increasingly are being charged as sex traffickers under new state laws intended to crack down on the illegal sex trade.

The arrests are part of a larger trend against domestic sex trafficking, particularly of minors. In November, police in Berkeley, California, arrested a 23-year-old Oakland woman for human trafficking after they discovered she had prostituted a Berkeley High School student out of local motels.

In the cases involving teen traffickers, the accused pimps ranged in age from 15 to 18. Some victims were paid, while others were manipulated into prostitution or held against their will.

  • In September, a 16-year-old from Rhode Island received 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking a 15- and 16-year-old. Authorities said he and a co-conspirator forced the girls to take provocative photos of themselves, which they used to advertise sex services on Backpage.
  • In July, police say another 16-year-old trafficked his 15-year-old girlfriend, whom he’d met on Instagram, around the California beach towns of San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach and Santa Cruz. The girl told police that she was forced to have sex with 15 men before she managed to escape.
  • In Florida last year, two teens were charged with trafficking fellow high school students and arranging “dates” for the students using Facebook, Snapchat and Kik. A 21-year-old man also was charged with sexual battery on a victim older than 12. The teens advertised rates of $50 to $70 for oral sex and $100 for sex with a virgin and gave students a 40 percent cut.
  • In 2013, a high school senior in the Minneapolis area was charged with trafficking a fellow cheerleader.

Under earlier laws, these perpetrators might have been charged as juveniles, and with pimping. But under new state laws, pimps often are viewed as sex traffickers, a designation that provides harsher punishments. The state laws usually are modeled after federal law, which defines a juvenile sex trafficking victim as any minor who engages in a commercial sex act, whether by force or willingly.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people charged in the Rhode Island case. There were two defendants. A previous version also misstated the number of teenagers charged in the Florida case. Two defendants were teenagers; a third was 21 years old.

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Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.