At a forum sponsored by the Alameda County District Attorney's office, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said 300,000 youth across the country between the ages of 12 and 18 have been forced into "sex enslavement" by pimps and others.
"The numbers are staggering," but society isn't doing enough to stop the growing problem, Speier said.
San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon said the sexual exploitation of minors is a form of "modern day slavery that's been accepted in our community for way too many years."
"It's an epidemic and a community problem that we all have to work together to solve," he said.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she and others in her office have been fighting the sexual exploitation of minors for many years and earlier this year started a program called Human Exploitation and Trafficking, or HEAT, Watch.
The program brings together under one umbrella several strategies to combat human trafficking, including engaging local businesses and communities, training law enforcement officials, prosecuting offenders, pursuing tougher laws, and providing services for children who have been exploited.
O'Malley said her office recently received a $300,000, two-year federal grant to expand HEAT Watch to combat the sex trafficking of minors throughout the nine-county Bay Area.
The new effort is called the Bay Area HEAT Coalition, or BAHC.
O'Malley said the coalition's goal is to unite local, state and federal agencies, law enforcement, service providers, and communities in a coordinated effort to rescue sexually exploited children and hold their traffickers accountable across city, county, and state borders.
Speier said HEAT Watch "is the gold standard" for fighting the sexual exploitation of minors, and she's glad it's being replicated throughout the region.
Speier said she was horrified by what she saw when she recently rode along with police in an area east of Lake Merritt in Oakland that she described as "the infamous track" because it's well known for child prostitutes.
"It was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and despicable," she said. "There were girls on street corners who were in prison in public view with their pimps in the shadows."
She said pimps treat young girls as commodities and can make $600,000 a year by pimping four girls.
Speier said she wants to "bring these soulless traffickers to justice."
Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, said he's proud that he helped sponsor legislation that enhanced penalties for those convicted of the human trafficking of minors and allows authorities to seize their assets.
But he said more work remains to be done.
"This is not a sprint," Swanson said. "This is a long-distance run."