Johns Creek Candidates get lesson on JC human trafficking

Citizen group makes case for more action against illicit massage parlors

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – How prevalent are illicit massage parlors in Johns Creek? According to a group of concerned citizens researching the problem in the city, there are more “erotic” parlors along Medlock Bridge Road within the city limits than there are gas stations or fast food restaurants.

The Oct. 20 meeting was billed as a candidate forum for the seven candidates for the three City Council seats up for election this November. But as one of the organizers of the event candidly said, its purpose was more to inform the candidates about the proliferation of illicit massage parlors than to get their position on curbing them.

Larry Hanlon is one of the members of the citizens group that is looking into the problem. They organized after an April City Council meeting in which they came forward to ask for the city’s help in ridding the city of these thinly veiled prostitution shops operating in the open on the city’s main thoroughfares.

They were told city police were indeed aware of the problem, but prosecution of such cases is difficult and time-consuming, and often end up with the accused getting off with a fine in Fulton Superior Court.

So Hanlon and his friends began to research what could be done.

“We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any experience. And we didn’t have a plan. But we did have a business background. So we first set out to educate ourselves about this problem,” he said.

They found out law enforcement has identified 71 illicit massage parlors operating north of the Chattahoochee River in Roswell, Alpharetta, Cumming, Norcross and nine operating in Johns Creek alone.

“We found that the real victims are the women who are forced to work in these operations. Many of them are underage, don’t speak English and are virtual slaves to the people who run these operations,” Hanlon said.

As they investigated, they found what they call the “loop of frustration,” that seems to always bring the problem of the cure back on itself. Here is what they have discovered:

• The wrong people get arrested. It is the women, not the johns or the pimps who go to jail in the majority of the cases.

• Little meaningful data is collected.

• Enforcement efforts are fragmentary and ineffective.

• It is a situation flying under the public’s radar screen. Most citizens are unaware of the situation existing in their cities.

• Customers and pimps have little fear of being caught, and the consequences to them if they are caught are relatively minor.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that 40 percent of all trafficking in minor children occurs north of I-285. Why? The area is more affluent and the johns know there is far less violent crime, so they are safer in the northern suburbs than in many places in Atlanta.

The illicit parlors openly advertise their services on websites well known to the johns. With only a little diligence, it is possible to find the ones in Johns Creek that advertise a “happy ending,” which is a euphemism for sexual climax.

They also contain bloggers’ ratings of the shops commenting in graphic terms.

“The biggest complaints they posted were that the women were too old. They wanted younger girls. Since most of the women brought into this business enter it underage, that means they are asking for ever younger girls that they can dress up,” Hanlon said.

Girls as young as 12 and 13 are routinely found to be working when these shops do get raided.

There is progress in Georgia for this problem. The Legislature has toughened pimping laws increasing the punishment for pimping underage children from a $50 fine as late as 2001 to a maximum of life in prison since 2010.

Georgia has become one of the toughest states in dealing with underage pimping. So much so that police intelligence shows pimps are actually leaving the state for more lenient territories.

Still, more is needed, such as safe houses where girls and women can find shelter and help to a better life, said Stewart Griffin of Street Grace, an Atlanta faith-based nonprofit organization that works to get girls and women out of the spiral of prostitution and give them shelter, education and counseling.

He is also the chief operating officer of FACE, Fathers Against Child Exploitation.

“Men are responsible for this problem, and men should be involved in the solution,” he said.

That solution is also based in wider public awareness. One way they are seeking this is for the Legislature to create a community designation called Champions of Safe Children. This would include cities adopting measures to make children safer such as requiring ordinances that:

• Forbid tinting windows at massage parlors

• Have strict enforcement of hours of operation

• Encourage more cooperation among other local law enforcement agencies

“We would like to see Johns Creek become the flagship for this,” Griffin said.

Johns Creek City Attorney Bill Riley spoke to the efforts the city has already begun. These include the closing of one illicit parlor.

The difficulty is nailing the shops on local ordinances that allow them to be tried in the city’s municipal court.

“If they can, they will have the case tried in Fulton Superior Court, where the usual penalty is a fine. In that case, they usually are back in business before the police officers who testified,” Riley said.

What would be a huge improvement in the next legislative session would be to allow cities to adopt concurrent ordinances that would allow the cities to try their cases “at home” where massage parlors might encounter harsher justice than in a higher court.