ATLANTA — The Georgia Senate passed two measures Thursday aimed at cracking down on what legislators say is a growing problem involving sexual exploitation of children in the state that extends far from inner cities into upscale suburbs.
Republican Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, sponsor of both measures, said Georgia must take action because it has one of the worst records in the nation in terms of sexual trafficking.
"The average age for starting prostitution is 12 to 14," she said. Atlanta ranks in the worst 20 cities, but "this is not just an inside-the-perimeter" problem. "Sixty-five percent of men who purchase sex with female children live in suburban areas."
She said Georgians should keep in mind that "someone convicted of this horrendous offense of having sex with a 12-year-old may live nearby."
"It's not enough to regret or feel bad about it, we have to put our morality into policy changes," she said.
One measure, a resolution calling for an amendment to the state constitution to fight child sexual exploitation, would set up a special fund to receive taxes and monetary penalties to help abused children. It passed 53-3.
A constitutional amendment requires a higher bar to pass the General Assembly, namely a two-thirds majority in both chambers. The accompanying bill, approved 53-2, sets out parameters and establishes a commission to administer the fund.
Unterman said child sexual exploitation has become a business that quickly enriches criminals but causes lifelong trauma for victims.
The state must "change this culture of sex trafficking" that she said has increased in part because of social networking.
Lawmakers have named the legislation the "Safe Harbor/Rachel's Act" in honor of a victim who was 17 when she was befriended by a sex trafficker on social media who deceived her. She is now in college, Unterman said.
"She met a boy on the Internet and he asked her to go on a vacation," Unterman said. "He took her to Miami and sold her. Rachel made it out, but she is one of the few."
Sen. Mike Crane said Atlanta is "recognized throughout the nation as the place where a child is most likely to be exploited."
He asked: "People have asked if this is the proper role of government. Should we be raising taxes or fees on businesses?
"There is a great cost to our society in what they do. We are the number one place in the world to do business, but we are not number one to do this kind of business. Georgia will not stand for the abuse of our children."