When a national group fighting the sex trafficking of minors started rating states in 2011, the nation as a whole received a failing grade.
In the most recent round of report cards released to the USA TODAY Network on Wednesday by Shared Hope International, the overall average is a B – marking another year of rising scores.
The grades included 15 states with an A, while two states – Maine and South Dakota – received D grades.
Despite the improvements, agency officials said a lot of work remains, focusing on the 20 states that allow police to criminally charge minors with prostitution.
“It comes back to the word prostitute ... and it is biasing our laws when the act would be considered statutory rape because it involves a child if no money were exchanged,” said Linda Smith, who founded Shared Hope in the late 1990s after serving in the U.S. Congress for Washington state for four years.
The report comes after several high-profile sex trafficking cases nationally, including the solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, as well as the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who committed suicide before he could be tried.
This year, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the USA TODAY Network published the results of a yearlong investigation into sex trafficking in the southern Ohio city of Portsmouth, where several women accused a former city councilman and other prominent men of sex trafficking.
"We've still got core issues that allow the buyer in big part to get reduced sentences or no penalty at all while the child or youth still have big challenges to get justice," Smith said.
South Dakota is one of the few states that saw its numerical grade fall, primarily because of legislation that sent any minor involved in a commercial sex act through the criminal justice system.
Advocates said the move was made to get minors at least some protection and treatment instead of just releasing them unsupervised.
"We need to make sure we have the structures and systems in place that have sustainability before we change the laws," said Becky Rasmussen, executive director of the Sioux Falls-based nonprofit anti-trafficking agency Call To Freedom. She said new federal grants will fund four positions to help minor victims statewide.
National officials said placing such minors behind bars, even for a night or two, can retraumatize them.
"There is not a full recognition that these kids are victims of a crime," said Sarah Bendtsen, policy counsel with Shared Hope.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said her state's low grade was disappointing and a surprise. She pointed to changes in state law that allow trafficking victims to expunge their records as minors and increase penalties for attempted human trafficking.
Still, "we've got some work to do," Noem said, noting the issue with juveniles being charged and jailed.
Maine removed laws allowing minors to be charged criminally with prostitution, but its score remained low, primarily because trafficking a minor in the state is a low-level felony that brings penalties of one to five years.
"We need to go after the traffickers and the demand side of it," said state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. "We don't want to be known for being a home of sex trafficking, especially for kids."
Tennessee scored the highest, followed by Montana and Nevada, which has improved the most from when the grades began. Tennessee went from an F to an A from 2011 to 2019, jumping 11.5 points in the past year.
Kimberly Mull, a survivor of juvenile sex trafficking, said she and other advocates camp at the Nevada Legislature to pressure lawmakers.
"Having a survivor's voice and presence in the building makes a big difference," said Mull, who works as a consultant on sex harassment and abuse in Las Vegas.
Contributing: Danielle Ferguson of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader.
Follow James Pilcher on Twitter: @jamespilcher
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Juvenile sex trafficking: States improve on fighting it, issues remain