A nationwide sweep recently took down child prostitution rings in 16 U.S. cities, netted 300 suspects and rescued 21 children, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced Wednesday.
FBI Operation Cross Country took place between June 18-22, in Boston, Washington, D.C., Montgomery County, Md., Atlanta, Toledo, Detroit, Miami, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Reno, Oakland and Sacramento.
Federal agents worked with local and state police on the cases, resulting mostly in local charges. The FBI hopes some of the girls and women who were arrested in the sweeps will provide more information to go after key organizers and pimps.
The FBI, in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), announced the operation's results to mark the five-year anniversary of the Innocence Lost program, which has targeted domestic trafficking in child prostitution.
Mueller said the Innocence Lost program has led to the recovery of 433 child victims who have been trapped into a life of prostitution. Additionally, investigations have yielded 308 convictions and the confiscation of assets in excess of $3 million.
Despite the program's apparent successes, Mueller warned that the bureau sees an increasing use of the Internet in the crimes. "What is different as we stand here today, is that we are faced with the increasing use of social network sites and other advances in technology, to carry out these crimes and facilitate these criminal enterprises," he said.
Ernie Allen, NCMEC president and CEO said, "This is a problem on Main Street, USA. ... This is an under-recognized and under-reported crime." He cited a University of Pennsylvania study, which estimated as many as 300,000 children in the United States are at risk for exploitation around the country.
"These kids are victims. They lack the ability to walk away. This is 21st-century slavery," Allen said.
Mueller also was asked about Wednesday's Supreme Court decision that struck down the death penalty as a punishment for child rapists. Six states currently have laws allowing the death penalty in those cases.
Mueller said he had not reviewed the Court's opinion at the time of the press conference, but noted that federal penalties can be "rather severe," including life in prison.