Just when I thought passage of Proposition 35 (the “Californians Against Sexual Exploitation” or CASE Act) was a given, opponents have begun crawling out of the woodwork to voice their discontent with the initiative. Even the Sacramento Bee has taken an official position opposing the measure.
It is difficult to fathom why anyone would come out against an initiative that will provide much-needed protection for children who are sold for sex day in and day out in virtually every city across our state. Initially, naysayers were reluctant to openly oppose Prop 35—and for good reason. Who would say they’re fine with pimps and traffickers profiting from the sale of other human beings, including children?
But once the word got out that it was socially and politically acceptable to favor the rights of outspoken traffickers over their voiceless victims, those of us who think society owes a duty of legal protection to the vulnerable find ourselves fighting for an initiative we never considered wouldn’t pass.
The Sacramento Bee calls the CASE Act “flawed,” the LA Times calls in “unnecessary,” the Ventura County Star says it’s too narrow and the Erotic Service Providers Union says it’s too broad. Some California State lawmakers are upset because they weren’t invited to weigh in, as Proposition 35 is the people’s initiative, thus bypassing the legislature. Just for the record, lawmakers have had ample opportunity to pass legislation that could already have facilitated the prosecution of traffickers and the protection of children. But they didn’t. And now the people have an opportunity to speak.
I support Proposition 35 because I believe in a world where children will not be sold for sex.
The reality is that we currently don’t live in that world. Peruse the overtly sexual ads on Backpage, read the creative euphemisms for solicitations for sex with kids on Craigslist and Facebook, check out the number of minors rescued in our region alone by the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force (250 and counting), or simply drive along North Watt Avenue (or wherever the track is in your neighborhood—trust me, there is one) and then try to avoid the conclusion that the sexual exploitation of children is an enormous problem in our state.
While it is true that California has a human trafficking statute, it does not provide adequate protection for minors. In fact, children are not even officially recognized as being victims of trafficking unless their perpetrators are convicted under the state law. In its final report on Prop 35, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that a grand total of 18 individuals are presently serving time for trafficking offenses.
Based on that figure, some—like the Sacramento Bee—simply conclude that “the crime may not be at a crisis level—at least not yet.” I beg to differ.
I recently had a conversation with one of the girls I work with about this very issue. She has spent a good portion of her 15 years in and out of juvenile hall and I asked her how many other girls she encountered there who had been sold for sex. Her answer: almost all of them. That’s hundreds of girls in a single facility in a single county in a state with at least one juvenile hall in each of its 58 counties. Add to that the thousands of potential victims in our child welfare system and the untold numbers of runaways who are especially vulnerable to being trafficked and then ask yourself how many more children have to be sexually exploited before we can call it a crisis?
I will be the first to acknowledge that Prop 35 is not the silver bullet in the fight against sex trafficking. The proposition doesn’t address the massive demand side of the equation. And while it defines victims, it does not require anyone to actually identify them. But it does contain several important provisions to protect children.
Specifically, the CASE Act adopts the federal definition of sex trafficking, under which the exchange of money for sex with a minor is a trafficking crime. The federal law does not require proof of force, fraud or coercion because those elements are inherent in the sexual exploitation of children. Prop 35 also increases criminal penalties for traffickers, which should serve as a deterrent. Currently, most traffickers are charged with pimping and pandering and serve very little, if any, jail time.
The CASE Act amends the evidence code so that prior evidence of having been commercially exploited (i.e. prostituted) is not admissible to attack the credibility or character of a victim of sex trafficking in a civil or criminal proceeding. This aligns with the existing Rape Shield Law, which prohibits evidence of a victim’s prior sexual history in rape cases.
One reason why so few traffickers are prosecuted as such is that victims—especially minors—are reluctant to testify when they are painted as willing participants in the crimes perpetrated against them. We do extensive trial preparation with the girls from Courage House who are called to provide victim testimony in trafficking-related cases to ensure that they are not re-traumatized through the experience.
Prop 35 also requires traffickers to register on the state sex offender registry and to provide information regarding their Internet identifiers. The California registry was established under our state’s Megan’s Law in 1996—the CASE Act simply brings the registration requirements into the 21st century. There is no reason why we should continue to allow traffickers and other sex offenders to assume anonymity so they can victimize children online. Parents have a right to know if a trafficker poses a danger to their children whether in their neighborhood or online.
As we prepare to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is unconscionable for Californians to continue to turn a blind eye to the scourge of modern-day slavery. We have a long way to go in terms of identifying victims and providing access to comprehensive care and treatment for those who have endured unspeakable trauma at the hands of their traffickers. Still, the CASE Act is a good start and contains common-sense provisions that will make life in our state less comfortable for traffickers and safer for vulnerable children.