"We treat the girls as victims and deliver specialized services to them, and we prosecute the pimps to the maximum sentences possible," Bock said in an interview one day last week as she rushed to a court hearing carrying the trademark tools of her trade: a thick court filein one hand and a Blackberry cell phone in the other.
Her mission may sound obvious, but it represents a sea change in the way the criminal justice system has historically treated minors ensnared in the sex trade. Until about two years ago, the girls some as young as 11 or 12 have been prosecuted and jailed.
Now, Bock, deputy district attorney in charge of Alameda County's human exploitation and trafficking unit, has been throwing the book at the men who victimize the youngsters and has been making sure the girls receive the care and services they need.
"For me, it's about giving back to them what has been taken from them," Bock said. "Maybe I can be a glimmer for them of what love looks like."
The Alameda County District Attorney's Office has filed felony trafficking charges against 84 pimps in the last two years, since California enacted a new law making it easier to charge people with human trafficking for sex.
Bock, 45, was the first attorney in California to charge a case under the law, which took effect in January 2006.
Whenever possible, Bock also tries to maximize sentences for accused pimps by filing additional charges, including sexual assault, burglary and, sometimes, kidnapping. Kidnapping a minor could lead to a life sentence for a pimp.
Of the 84 pimps charged, 49 have been convicted and most are serving time in prison or county jail, Bock said. Another 28 cases are pending or awaiting trial.
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Only seven cases have been dismissed.
Spreading the word
More importantly, as Bock sees it, she has trained officers at the Oakland and BART police departments and with the Alameda County Sheriff's and probation departments, which oversees juvenile hall, and other county and state agencies on how to pursue trafficking cases to get pimps behind bars and rescue the girls.
She also has trained state parole officers and members of the state attorney general's staff, as well as police officers from 11 other jurisdictions and even FBI and federal immigration officials, on what is regarded as a new, more just approach to tackling sexual exploitation of minors.
"It's innovative," said her boss, Chief Assistant District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.
O'Malley said Bock's efforts to get young prostitutes into counseling instead of juvenile hall "owes a lot to Sharmin's ability to reach out to the professionals who intersect with these kids."
Bock worked with social service agencies to form a Sexually Exploited Minors Network in 2003. The network now includes a dozen law enforcement, counseling and assistance programs as well as the Alameda County juvenile justice system.
Bock said inter-agency cooperation is essential to help the girls and prosecute the pimps.
Today, when Oakland police arrest a pimp or a minor involved in prostitution, a social worker advocate is on the scene to deliver counseling to the youngster, while the police consult with Bock on the scene and throughout the investigation on what charges to bring against the apprehended pimps, she said.
Officers try to avoid arresting girls, but may do so to help target the pimp, or because the girls will be safer in juvenile hall than under the coercive tutelage of a pimp.
BART police Detective Ed Alvarez said the collaborative work has helped his agency and Oakland police nab some of the many pimps who use BART stations as recruiting grounds.
"After training at the DA's office, officers know if they see an older man talking to group of girls, the guy is probably recruiting girls," said Alvarez, who was a lead investigator on a case brought to court last week in which a 32-year old pimp was prosecuted for recruiting a 13-year-old girl at a BART station and trafficking her for sex.
Alvarez said BART officials also learned to pay attention to arguments.
"It may not be just a male and female arguing," he said. "It might be a pimp trying to recruit a young girl against her will."
Protection and prosecution
Still, prosecuting pimps is sensitive, hard work, made all the harder because Bock and police departments try to protect the girls and, if possible, spare them from arrest.
But because she works within a system of laws and court hearings, Bock often needs the victim's cooperation to file charges against the pimp.
"That's one of the greatest challenges," Bock said. "Without the victim's participation in the prosecution, we don't have a case."
Regardless, she said, a victim should always be free to decide if she wishes to testify. "Otherwise," Bock said, "the system will just be re-victimizing them."
Contact Barbara Grady at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-208-6427.
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