Stalwarts in the fight against human trafficking in San Diego County met Friday to announce the pursuance of three measures aimed at protecting victims and bringing justice to their traffickers.
Senator Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) is working to introduce the initiatives which aim to combat sex trafficking on the streets, and in the courtroom.
According to Senator Atkins, San Diego is one of three California cities on the FBI’s list of top 13 cities in the country for sex trafficking. According to researchers at Point Loma Nazarene University and the University of San Diego, an estimated 8,100 people fall victim to the industry in San Diego County each year.
“When America’s finest City, as the Senator mentioned, makes the list for the FBI as one of the worst places for child prostitution, it’s time for every member of our community to pay attention,” county District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.
Senate Bill 230 focuses on bringing justice to trafficking victims by helping prosecutors build stronger cases against sex traffickers.
The bill would allow prosecutors to introduce evidence from a criminal defendant’s past sex trafficking crimes when they are being tried for a sexual offense. Prosecutors can introduce evidence from a defendant’s similar past offenses, but according to Senator Atkins, human trafficking is not a crime included on the list of sexual offenses.
“It’s important to expand the law to allow character evidence also, and evidence of past criminal acts to be used in cases involving sex trafficking, pimping and pandering,” Dumanis said. “As the Senator said, it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Dumanis said the bill will only help prosecutors because sex trafficking cases are notoriously difficult due to the nature of the victims and traffickers.
“Girls as young as 12 years old in neighborhoods across San Diego County are being recruited and trapped into a life of prostitution, or more accurately, a life of perpetual abuse at the hands of their pimps,” Dumanis added.
According to Dumanis, 50 percent of traffickers are gang members. Traffickers often use physical and mental abuse to dissuade their victims from fleeing or going to authorities for help.
Senator Atkins says that it was Dumanis who brought forth the idea of SB 230.
The second bill, SB 270, would create a mandate for hotels and motels to train their employees on recognizing signs of human trafficking and how to report those signs to authorities.
Hotels and motels have long been a common marketplace for the business of prostitution human trafficking.
“Starting as a teenager, and for 13 more years, I was trafficked up and down the I-5 corridor by a notorious pimp, and for at least a third of that time, we were in hotels and motels,” sex trafficking survivor and author Wendy Barnes said. “Sometimes we would stay for a day or two, other times we would stay for plenty of months. At some of those times I was confident that hotel staff knew what was happening. I could see that some of the staff felt sorry for us, they just didn’t know how to help. If hotel staff had been trained to know what to look for and what to do when suspecting trafficking activity, I may have been saved sooner.”
SB 270 started last year as the Safe Action Project, which was spearheaded by Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan and California Hotel and Lodging Association (CHLA) board members. Nearly 60 hotels and motels in the San Diego area have since gone through training to detect signs of human trafficking on their grounds.
Last year, the District Attorney’s Office and community partners held the first Hotel Motel Human Trafficking Awareness Symposium in the county under the leadership of Chief Deputy Stephan.
The third bill, titled Assistance for Survivors, is an initiative to provide housing and mental health services for sex trafficking victims.
“We need to give victims a safe place to stay, removed from their traffickers,” Atkins said. “We also need to provide children with mental health counselling to overcome the specific type of trauma that comes from being trafficked.”
Atkins says that the state lacks an affective system that serves child and adult victims, and that better housing situations are needed. She says that providing funding for this bill is one of her top priorities for her first years in the Senate.