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 is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

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. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. 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 based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.