Anti-Prostitution Laws are Hurting Juveniles

The movement to decriminalize sex work has been pushed by sex workers for decades and has gained national popularity in criminal justice discussions. Decriminalizing sex work would halt arrests and charges for prostitution. While this may not seem like a juvenile justice issue, there is a small but significant group who have been impacted by anti sex work laws: juveniles arrested for prostitution.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as recruiting, patronizing, or otherwise causing a person under 18 years old to participate in a commercial sex act.[1] Most states have statutory rape laws which state a person under a certain age cannot consent to sex with an adult. In Texas, for example, an adult cannot engage in sexual contact with a person under 17 years old.[2] These laws indicate a general consensus that minors cannot consent to sex work or sex with adults. If that is the case, the 290 children aged 0-17 who were arrested in 2019 for prostitution should have been treated as victims instead of criminals.[3]

The interception of child trafficking victims and criminal prostitution laws can be seen in the 2010 Texas case In re B.W. This case involved a 13 year old girl who was arrested for prostitution in Texas.[4] The offense was filed in adult criminal court, where it was discovered the arrestee was a child. [5] The prostitution charge was then dismissed, but B.W.’s involvement with the justice system was not over. The charges were transferred to juvenile court, where B.W. pleaded true to the allegation, which is the equivalent of pleading guilty in adult court, and was sentenced to 18 months probation.[6]

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that because the legislature has determined children under 14 do not have the mental capacity to consent to sex with anyone, they are exempt from prostitution charges. [7] This was a win for B.W. and child sex trafficking victims all over Texas, but the impact of criminalization was already felt. B.W. had already been subjected to arrest and booking in adult court. In re B.W. protects juveniles who are 14 or younger, but leaves other teenagers in Texas age 15-16 vulnerable to prostitution charges and arrests. There is not clear data on how many 15 and 16 year olds have been arrested for prostitution in Texas since In re B.W., but Texas makes up part of the 290 total arrests, indicating there have been some. Not all arrests lead to charges, but all arrests traumatize the children who are subject to them.

The effects of arrest on juveniles cannot be taken lightly. Youth who have been arrested are much less likely than their peers to graduate high school or enroll in college.[8] A child who is arrested and is then confined at a juvenile detention facility is virtually guaranteed to not finish their high school education.[9] Young people without a high school degree will face more difficulties finding stability and employment.[10] High school dropouts may face an increased risk of grooming by sex traffickers because they are not around teachers who recognize the signs and can refer the student to school counseling or other services.

Criminalization of sex work is causing lifelong effects in vulnerable juveniles. While full decriminalization of sex work may not be popular in every state, laws preventing minors from being charged with prostitution would go a long way in protecting the country’s youth.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1591
[2] Tex. Penal Code §21.11
[3] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/ucr.asp?table_in=1
[4] In re B.W., 313 S.W.3d 818
[5]Id.
[6] ​​Id.
[7] Id.
[8] David S. Kirk & Robert J. Sampson, Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Education Damage in the Transition to Adulthood, 36, 47 (American Psychological Association 2013).
[9] Id at 55
[10] Id.

COVID-19 and Child Poverty: How a Pandemic Showed Us We Have a Choice

Over the course of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of child poverty in the United States has fallen dramatically “from 14.2% in 2018 to less than 5.6% in 2021” with severe poverty cutting almost in half.[1] In fact, the 2020 child poverty rates in the United States were the lowest they have been since the 1960s when the US Census Bureau began measuring child poverty rates.[2]

The decrease in child poverty is due to the government’s expansion “of the social safety net,” including the “child tax credit and funding for food.”[3] The child tax credit alone decreased child poverty by approximately 40 percent after providing families with monthly checks to cover basic necessities.[4] In addition to the child tax credit, “other safety-net expansions” provided during the pandemic included “three stimulus checks, a moratorium on evictions, increased unemployment benefits and more funding for food, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and housing.”[5] According to research, if these safety-net options were not provided, approximately one out of three children in the United States “would be living in poverty.”[6]

However, experts warn that permitting these “measures to expire may” result in child poverty rates increasing once again.[7] The child tax credit already expired in January 2022, resulting in 3.7 million more children in poverty, “a 41% increase from December.”[8] Families who previously used the child tax credit to cover basic necessities are struggling to provide their families with “food, pay rent and keep the lights on,” especially because prices continue to rise.[9]

Not only is alleviating poverty the right thing to do, but there are also economic benefits for reducing the rate of child poverty.[10] In fact, the National Academy of Sciences found that “child poverty costs the US between $800bn and $1.1tn each year” due to “lost adult productivity and the increased cost of health and criminal justice spending.”[11]

The safety-net expansions implemented during the pandemic demonstrate how allowing children to remain in poverty is a choice and how we know some ways to end child poverty.[12] Now, it is time to implement policies to end child poverty once and for all.


[1] Melody Schreiber, Child poverty will rise if US withdraws COVID-era benefits, experts warn, Guardian (Mar. 17, 2022) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/mar/17/us-child-poverty-rate-welfare-measures-expire-experts.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

New Research Analyzes the Effects of Foster Care on Children’s Well-Being

New research, published in April analyzes the effectiveness of the foster care system in Michigan.[1] In what is perhaps a surprising result, children who enter the foster care system are better off than their peers who remain with their parents.

A recent study showed that 6% of all American children spend some amount of time in the foster care system. That number is much higher for children of color: 10% of Black children enter the foster care system at some point in their childhood, and 15% of Native American children enter the system at some point.[2]

Economists have been studying foster care outcomes since 2007. Previous research studied foster care outcomes from Illinois and found that foster care hurt children more than leaving children in the home.[3] That study looked at children on the margin – those who were on the boundary between being removed from the home and staying with parents – to show that those who were removed from the home were convicted of crimes at higher rates, and had lower long-term incomes.

This study uses the same research design in Michigan, and suggests the opposite result: these authors found that foster care reduced the likelihood that children were alleged to be victims of abuse by 52%, increased daily school attendance by 6%, and a small decrease in findings of juvenile delinquency.

So why is Michigan so different from Illinois? These authors suggest that Illinois’ foster care system was especially harmful, so rather than foster care in general harming children, Illinois’ implementation of foster care was to blame. As evidence, they show that Illinois children spent the longest amount of time in the system in the country, while Michigan is closer to average.

Another possible explanation is that foster care has simply improved over time. The authors cite to a child trends study which shows that children are now spending less time in the system, and are being placed with family members more often.[4]

What does this mean for those interested in child policy? It’s not quite clear. Hopefully, research like this will prompt other states to look at their own foster care programs to see if they are more like Illinois or Michigan. We know that removing a child from the home is a drastic measure that should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Nothing here suggests that more children should enter foster care, only that in this particular jurisdiction, it is effective for the child on the bubble between removal and remaining in the home.

My takeaway is this: good foster care that helps children is possible. It might look like shorter stays in the system and more placements with family members. It definitely looks like states should be analyzing their foster care systems with the most advanced tools possible, like the ones these economists employed.


[1] Max Gross & E. Jason Baron, Temporary Stays and Persistent Gains: The Causal Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 14(2): 170–199 (2022).

[2] Emanuel Wildeman, Cumulative Risks of Foster Care Placement by Age 18 for U.S. Children, 2000–2011, PLoS ONE 9(3): e92785 (2014).

[3] Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Review 97 (5): 1583-1610 (2007) (“the results suggest that children on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home, especially older children.”).

[4] Child Trends, Child Trends Databank, https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/foster-care.