High demand keeps countless people caught in a nasty cycle of being sexually exploited. King County is right to go after buyers.

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KING County should be commended for reaching a new milestone.

For the first time last year, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg’s office did not charge a single minor with prostitution. In 2009, more than 50 children were charged. Fewer adults were charged, too, as law enforcement focused more on going after buyers. Such trends show how instead of shaming or causing additional harm to exploited people, law enforcement is increasingly referring them for help.

This is the right, compassionate approach considering so many of the people found in these situations are forced to sell themselves. The average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 15 years old, according to the prosecutor’s office. While a few insist they work in the commercial sex industry by choice, a deeper look at many of their backgrounds often reveals they are victims of abuse, neglect and other trauma.

Buyers need to understand how their actions are often deepening another person’s victimization and pain. County records of buyers facing charges indicate they come from all walks of life, from the technology and manufacturing sectors to government and the military.

Between 2013 and 2015, more than 140 men were charged after getting caught in the act or trying to buy sex from children. They have been getting off way too easily under current rules based on antiquated beliefs that prostitution is a victimless crime.

Other jurisdictions should follow King County’s lead. State legislators could help by passing SB 5277, a measure that proposes increasing the crime of purchasing sex from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. If passed, fines for patronizing would increase from $1,000 to $5,000 and maximum jail time would be extended from 90 days up to 364 days.

SB 5277 passed the state Senate and House committees, but it needs a final vote on the floor. With time running out, lawmakers ought to send this to the governor’s desk.

Increasing the risk and consequences of buying sex forces patrons to think carefully about their actions and enables law enforcement to take the offense more seriously. Focusing more resources on ending this scourge would help curb demand and reduce harm to countless people.