Initiative Raises Penalties for Human Trafficking

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    NEWSLETTERS

    California voters will consider toughening the penalties on human trafficking in a November ballot initiative funded almost entirely by a former Facebook official and opposed -- somewhat surprisingly -- by some advocates who are trying to stop the exploitation.

    If it's approved by voters, Proposition 35 would more than double sentences for human traffickers and impose a life sentence for the sex-trafficking of children.

    It also would require sex offenders to provide email addresses and other Internet identifiers to law enforcement.

    Former Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly has contributed nearly 90 percent of the $2.2 million raised in favor of the initiative. He said his goal, in part, is to replicate a crime-fighting program used in New York that requires sex offenders to reveal their online identities to police.

    "It requires them to disclose an electronic address, the same way they have to disclose a physical address," said Kelly, who lost a bid for state attorney general in 2010. "It will be used to fight the biggest scourges and the biggest traffickers."

    The initiative also broadens the definition of human trafficking and raises the penalties for offenders.

    It is endorsed by the state Democratic and Republican parties, a host of law enforcement agencies and police unions, anti-trafficking groups and numerous newspaper editorial boards. But the initiative also faces opposition -- perhaps unusually so -- from some of the advocates who work with victims of human trafficking in the state.

    John Vanek, a retired police lieutenant from the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force, said Proposition 35 might be well-intentioned but could discourage prosecutors from charging cases under the state's human trafficking laws. He said, for example, it could limit the information they can use in court.

    Vanek said he also opposes setting different penalties for sex and labor trafficking, and argues that a jury -- not voters -- should decide the severity of a case.

    "It's sort of like this perfect storm of problematic and exceptionally complex law changes, coupled with huge funding, coupled with a slow, unorganized response by the experts," Vanek said.

    The Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, which works directly with trafficking victims, said in a statement that the organization welcomed the attention the initiative had brought to the issue but worries that aspects of it could lead to unintended consequences. For example, it could decrease the amount of money available to survivors through civil remedies because of the increase in criminal fines.

    When voters begin studying the initiative, the opposition cited in the ballot pamphlets will be sex workers who fear that broadening the definition of human trafficking will render them victims under the law.

    Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project, said she is worried that the relatives of sex workers could be criminally charged as traffickers for receiving money or support from their family members' work.

    "You're really anti-prostitution, but you're calling yourself anti-trafficking," said Doogan, who co-authored the ballot argument against the proposition.

    Kelly and anti-trafficking advocates who support the proposition say it has strong backing. They cite poll numbers showing more than 80 percent of likely voter in favor.

    The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates will cost several million dollars a year in prosecution and incarceration costs, but also will generate a few million dollars annually through new criminal fines.

    No statistics were immediately available on the number of people in California who have been victims of human trafficking, according to the measure's proponents.

    Daphne Phung, who founded the nonprofit California Against Slavery after watching a television documentary about sex trafficking victims, said she tried to get lawmakers to carry a bill to push for tougher penalties for traffickers a few years ago. She then sought to get an initiative on the ballot.

    She paired up with Kelly after both efforts failed.

    Phung, a corporate financial planner, said she hopes Proposition 35 will give law enforcement officers more tools to fight human trafficking, for example, by not requiring proof of force in sex trafficking cases involving children. More broadly, she believes the measure is raising awareness about human trafficking in the state, which she hopes will translate into increased services and funding for victims.

    "We're going to send a message to everybody -- to the victims, to the traffickers, to the average citizen -- that this is a serious crime," Phung said.

    Leah Albright-Byrd, who ran away from home at 14, said she was arrested nine times for prostitution as a minor. Each time, she was released without law enforcement agencies questioning her about why she was on the streets.

    She now runs a nonprofit in Sacramento to help prevent other girls from falling prey to the same fate. The 28-year-old hopes that providing more training to police under the initiative might make a difference on the streets, where she said traffickers are well aware of the criminal penalties for selling drugs -- and children.

    "I can't even tell you how redemptive it is for me to see people go, `Wait a minute.' We're not calling them prostitutes -- we're calling them sex trafficking victims. And that's what it is," she said. "People are being moved with compassion. Hey, these are kids."