California bill increasing penalty for child sex trafficking clears hurdle

A proposed law in California to lengthen prison terms for people convicted of child sex trafficking that ignited public outrage and divided Democrats this summer was changed during a critical vote on Friday to address concerns over victims potentially being prosecuted.

An amended version of Senate Bill 14, which would add sex trafficking of minors to the list of “serious” felonies under California’s penal code and subject people to additional time in prison under the state’s “three strikes” law, passed the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee. The amendments “exempt human trafficking victims from the serious felony provision,” said Pasadena Democrat Chris Holden, chair of the panel.

The amendments, pushed by progressive Assembly Democrats, are a win for criminal justice reform advocates who have argued for months that the bill would harm victims. But the modifications could spark fresh fury among Republicans and moderate Democrats who saw the measure as a sensible way to mitigate a ballooning crisis in California and protect exploited children.

Disagreement over the closely watched measure reached a boiling point this summer, when the the Democratic-majority on the high-profile and left-leaning Assembly Public Safety Committee blocked the bill’s passage, despite it gliding through the Senate with bipartisan support during the first half of the year.

Democrats on the committee raised concerns that the bill could end up prosecuting victims who are forced into a cycle of human trafficking and retraumatize those who had survived abuse. They also cast doubt on expanding California’s “three strikes” law, a relic of the state’s tough-on-crime past that many advocates attribute to the wave of mass incarcerations that filled up prisons.

Advocates who work with sex trafficking victims have also been split on the bill, with some agreeing that it could result in incarcerating the wrong people, and others saying that severe prison terms are needed to discourage abuse.

By making child sex trafficking a strikeable offense, prosecutors could pursue life sentences for convicted individuals who have other “serious” or “violent” felonies on their records. Child sex trafficking already carries significant prison time, up to 12 years in some cases or 15 years to life if the crime involves other factors such as force, fear, coercion or violence.

“SB 14 doesn’t actually meet the needs of the victims and doesn’t address the causes of the problem,” said Natasha Minsker, a policy advisor to the left-leaning public safety organization Smart Justice California. “We are approaching the conversation from a completely wrong direction if we say we are going to increase penalties and we’re going to prosecute our way out of it.”

State Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) rejected that idea earlier this week, and said the goal of the bill was to protect children from repeat sex traffickers who are enabled by what she’s described as a lenient justice system. She argued that legal tools are available to ensure victims aren’t ensnared in prosecution.

“This bill does not wrap up victims at all,” Grove said during a Wednesday news conference. “This is a victims-centered bill.”

The bill’s initial demise earned Democrats a public relations nightmare, and handed Republicans the rare opportunity for a legislative win after they painted their counterparts as child sex trafficking apologists.

Some Democrats who had not initially supported the bill apologized and reversed course. The chaotic episode prompted both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) to weigh in on the issue and encourage a resolution. More than half of the Legislature’s 120 members have since signed on as co-authors of the bill.

Facing intense pressure to reconsider the vote — and after enduring death threats — Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Public Safety Committee, called for a new hearing on the measure and promptly passed it.

Debra Rush, a child-sex-trafficking survivor and founder of the Fresno-based organization Breaking the Chains, said that lawmakers have to draw a “hard line in the sand,” and said that SB 14 was a way to send a message to traffickers that they will face legal consequences.

“If we don’t protect our most precious resource, and our most vulnerable, our children, then we fail across the board. These are kids,” Rush said. “It is hard to even think of another crime that even comes anywhere near the level of trauma and violence that human trafficking victims experience.”

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