OAKLAND — If a young girl under 18 is picked up for prostitution, she is officially charged as a criminal and sent off to juvenile hall.

However, social service workers and law enforcement agencies are hoping passage of a new bill will change that.

Assembly Bill 499 — which advocates hail as "landmark legislation" — would identify minors caught in the sex trade as victims, rather than criminals, thus freeing them from the threat of prosecution and enabling them to receive the services they need.

"We have been slow to recognize that these children need a lifeline and this is the beginning." said Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, who sponsored the legislation.

The bill passed the Assembly with a 66-0 vote. A version of the bill is scheduled to go before the Senate Committee on Public Safety at a hearing Tuesday. The public can attend the hearing at the state Capitol building and testify.

Swanson said AB499 will help break the cycle of young girls being arrested, cited and released onto the streets to become adult prostitutes.

Currently, when children are arrested for prostitution they are not connected with the services they need. Under the new legislation, a judge would have an option to place minors in a diversionary program instead of on probation. The program is set up to offer them counseling and to work with the girls who want to bring charges against their pimp.

Last year, Swanson was asked to sponsor the bill by the Sexually Exploited Minors network, a group of social service and law enforcement agencies who have been working since 2003 to address child and teen prostitution in Alameda County.

AB 499 would:

- Increase coordination between government, law enforcement and child advocates working with sexually-exploited children to ensure they are treated with the similar types of care that victims of domestic violence receive, which includes access to shelters and counseling.

- Create a pilot program in Alameda County to implement a uniformed training curriculum to properly treat sexually-exploited minors as victims of coercion and not criminals of intent. The curriculum also would train law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders to properly recognize the signs of child sexual exploitation.

- Require that the training curriculum is available to local law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.

"This legislation takes Oakland one step closer toward combating one of the most serious epidemics threatening our youth — the sale of children for sex," said Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, assistant district attorney in charge of the county's human exploitation and tracking unit.

In addition, Swanson said he sees the outcome of AB499 will help to crack down on pimps, prosecuting them with the maximum sentences.

Currently, pimps are often sentenced between a range of four to 14 years with charges that may involve human trafficking and sexual assault. But if prosecutors can win a conviction on kidnapping a minor, their sentence could extend to as much as life in prison. The prosecutors and police work to bring many types of charges in order to maximize the pimps' prison sentences.

"We have to lower the recidivism rate," Swanson said. "We also have to employ strategies that go to the root causes that trap people and criminalizes them."

Advocates of AB499 say just because the children are involved in criminal behavior it doesn't make them criminals.

Gary Thompson, a network member and director of the Interagency Children's Policy Council, said if the bill is signed into law, it will help protect minors from repeatedly falling victim to the same predators.

"We are trying to help them recapture what was lost on the streets ... their youth and their childhood," Thompson said.

For more information about AB 499, visit http://www.assembly.ca.gov/swanson or call the office of Assemblyman Sandre Swanson at 510-286-1670.

Contact Kamika Dunlap at kdunlap@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6448.