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California advocates against baby intercourse trafficking invoice

California lawmakers are on the verge of sending Gov. Gavin Newsom a bill to strengthen penalties for child sex traffickers, a measure that roiled the Capitol this summer.

Assembly members voted unanimously on Monday to pass Senate Bill 14 from Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. It is expected to return to the Senate on Wednesday for approval of Assembly amendments before reaching the governor’s desk.

Newsom seems all but certain to sign it. He reposted the vote count on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Monday and said “Good to see.”

SB 14 would make trafficking a child for sex a serious felony, adding it to the list of crimes eligible for sentencing under California’s Three Strikes law. This adds significantly more prison time for those convicted of multiple offenses.

Child sex trafficking is already a felony in California. Convictions carry sentences of five to 12 years and a $500,000 fine. The penalty jumps to 15 years to life if the crime involves violence, coercion, fear or threats.

Some victims and advocate groups support SB 14. One such organization, 3Strands Global Foundation, is a bill sponsor.

But other advocates say the bill would hurt, not help, victims who have been forced into criminal activity themselves. Criminal justice reformers contend placing child sex trafficking on the list of serious felonies — the first such addition in more than two decades — would prompt lawmakers to begin dragging the state back to an era of more draconian sentencing.

“We really want to push back against that idea that stronger sentencing laws are going to discourage people from trafficking,” said Leigh LaChapelle, emergency response program manager at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST).

CAST has remained neutral on SB 14, even with recent amendments.

“Most human traffickers do not think of themselves as people who are going to get caught,” LaChapelle added. “That is not a deterrent. And the real issue is, why is it so easy to find people who are vulnerable and unable to leave and get assistance?”

Legislators, including, Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City, second from left in center, and Senate Bill 17 author Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, center, listen to speakers during an Assembly session at the Capitol on Thursday prior to a vote to revive the child sex trafficking bill that was killed by California Democrats but caught the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom who intervened.
Legislators, together with, Meeting Republican Chief James Gallagher of Yuba Metropolis, second from left in middle, and Senate Invoice 17 creator Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, middle, hearken to audio system throughout an Meeting session on the Capitol on Thursday previous to a vote to revive the kid intercourse trafficking invoice that was killed by California Democrats however caught the eye of Gov. Gavin Newsom who intervened.

Trafficking bill causes legislative uproar

SB 14 created a firestorm in the Legislature just before the summer recess in July.

Democrats on the Assembly Public Safety Committee first tanked the measure by choosing not to vote on it, causing an uproar among Republicans and the public on social media.

After intervention from Newsom and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, held a second hearing for SB 14. This time, several Democrats voted in favor of it, sending it to the Assembly Appropriations Committee and then onto the Assembly floor.

Backlash against the Democrats’ initial rejection of the bill grew ugly. Several committee members received racist threats of death and violence against themselves and family members. Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Modesto, leaned into right-wing conspiracies around Democratic politicians preying on children and told his colleagues on the Assembly floor to “pick pedophiles or children.”

The hysteria drowned out serious discussion about whether the measure would unfairly punish victims pushed into criminal behavior by their traffickers. It is a practice that LaChapelle, who uses they/them pronouns, said is common.

“Forced criminality is something that we see in many of our clients,” they said. “Their traffickers have forced them to commit crimes in order to keep them under the umbrella of force, fraud and coercion.”

“These crimes that they commit — when they get charged, when they get prosecuted — means that they are easier to control,” LaChapelle added. “Because again, they don’t have access any longer to all of those safety nets that are in place because of their records.”

Jones-Sawyer expressed this concern. So did April Grayson, a formerly incarcerated trafficking survivor who testified during the first Public Safety Committee hearing.

Grove said amendments to address the issue were not necessary and that the bill is “victim-centered.” But the Assembly Appropriations Committee insisted on language explicitly stating the Legislature intends to “protect victims of human trafficking and ensure they are not themselves criminalized.”

Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento in May. Bonta voted in favor of a bill to strengthen penalties for child sex traffickers, even though she worries it could negatively impact victims.
Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, speaks at a press convention on the state Capitol in Sacramento in Might. Bonta voted in favor of a invoice to strengthen penalties for baby intercourse traffickers, though she worries it may negatively impression victims. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Lawmaker concerns linger

Some lawmakers still have misgivings and do not think the amendments go far enough. Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland voted ‘yes’ on Monday, even though she does not entirely support the measure.

Immediately after passage, she announced plans for legislation next year to support trafficking survivors.

“I still have some concerns with the language,” Bonta said of SB 14. “As it stands right now, it doesn’t clearly define victim at all. And I worry that the language still can be used to leverage victims to essentially plead to a shorter sentence and potentially take a strike on their record.”

During Assembly floor debate, Jones-Sawyer pointed out other legal issues that SB 14 does not address, such as plea bargaining, that allow traffickers to serve lighter sentences.

“We should not be letting these individuals out early so they can go ahead and recommit the same crime again and again, after one year or two years,” Jones-Sawyer said. “We need to be able to close that (loophole).”

Assembly Majority Leader Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, and several other Democrats also expressed frustration with the tone of the policy discussion, even though they ultimately voted for the bill.

“I would strongly encourage this body to think very, very carefully before we go down the pathway where the criminal legal system becomes the answer for poverty, exploitation, the failing of our children and the failing of entire communities,” Bryan said.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, taps the gavel after California lawmakers revived a bill Thursday to enact harsher punishments for child sex traffickers after Democrats blocked it earlier in the week, prompting involvement from Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leadership.
Meeting Public Security Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, faucets the gavel after California lawmakers revived a invoice Thursday to enact harsher punishments for baby intercourse traffickers after Democrats blocked it earlier within the week, prompting involvement from Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative management. Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com

Trafficking survivor, advocate opposition

Some human trafficking survivors testified in support of the bill alongside Grove and pushed for more stringent penalties. Others, like Grayson, do not believe adding more prison time for traffickers will help survivors, especially those who have been incarcerated.

Jess Torres, an advocate and trafficking survivor who lives in Southern California, is in Grayson’s camp.

Torres, who uses they/them pronouns, identifies as queer and transgender and was pushed out of their home as a teenager as a result of their sexuality and gender identity.

A friend from school, who was also being trafficked, recruited Torres into a situation that required them to participate in the sex trade to support the people they were living with. Torres said they were sexually abused as a child, which further normalized the situation.

“A multitude of things created the setting for all this to happen,” Torres said. “It was a long road before I was able to see outside of this experience and be able to think of myself as somebody who deserved or was able to get out.”

Torres was incarcerated as a result of crimes they committed while they were being trafficked, which contributes to their stance on SB 14.

“Instead of diverting this scarce energy that we have, and resources, to reactive legislation that only focuses on what happens after someone has been trafficked, that we can focus on stopping trafficking from happening in the first place and really prioritizing legislation that builds the economic and political power of vulnerable communities,” Torres said.

When asked about organizations and survivors seeking different solutions to human trafficking, Grove said she’s focused on one aspect of the problem.

“There are so many avenues of this horrific, horrendous, awful crime,” she said. “And I’m going after this one little piece about sex trafficking minors.”

California has not added a strikable offense to its books since 2002, said Natasha Minsker, policy advisor for Smart Justice California. She attributed this shift to the 2009 federal court order requiring the state to reduce prison overcrowding, as well as a “heightened awareness about the problems of racial disparities in sentencing.”

Minsker said she fears a “social media mob is now being allowed to dictate the outcomes in California’s Legislature.”

“My concern is that we’re going to continue to see political rhetoric dominate the discourse in this area, rather than good criminal justice policy,” she said.

Associated tales from Sacramento Bee

Lindsey Holden covers the California Legislature for The Sacramento Bee. She beforehand reported on housing and native authorities for The Tribune of San Luis Obispo. Lindsey began her profession on the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. She’s a local Californian raised within the Midwest, the place she earned levels from DePaul and Northwestern universities.

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