Human trafficking, particularly trafficking into sex work, has captivated the attention of many Americans. Regardless of political persuasion, we all seem to agree that forced sex work is morally abhorrent and its perpetrators should be incarcerated. But while we are so focused on finding and prosecuting the traffickers, we have paid little attention to how the law criminalizes and re-traumatizes the survivors.
Survivors of sex trafficking often have numerous criminal convictions on their record, which prevent them from finding gainful employment, obtaining immigration status, and moving on with their lives. Therefore, not only are these survivors recovering from a tremendously psychologically damaging experience, their convictions prevent them from escaping poverty, increasing their risk of being re-trafficked. While most of these convictions are for prostitution-related offenses, many are for larceny, drugs, or weapons, as their traffickers are not always forcing them into sex work alone.
This injustice is prevalent for a number of reasons, including the failure of the criminal justice system to identify these people as individuals who are being trafficked when they first enter the system. Another, more easily remedied, explanation is that only seven states have laws that allow survivors of human trafficking to vacate their convictions when the participation in the offense was a result of having been a victim of trafficking. New York’s law, passed in 2007, is considered the nation’s most progressive law on the matter, but only explicitly allows the vacatur of two convictions: prostitution and loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Some New York state courts have used ambiguous “in the interest of justice” language in the statute to vacate some misdemeanors, including minor drug or petit larceny convictions. But, if a survivor has a felony conviction on their record for a crime committed while under the control of their trafficker, they are left with no remedy, even in the most liberal jurisdiction in the nation on this issue.
Since everyone seems to agree that human sex trafficking is modern day slavery, why aren’t state legislators passing laws right and left to help survivors get a clean slate? Is it ignorance about the legal remedies that survivors actually need? Or maybe it stems from a fear that providing increased avenues to vacatur for anyone will scuff these politician’s reputations for “law and order” that they have sought so hard to build up. No matter if the reason is lack of knowledge or political will, passing vacatur laws in all 50 states is the least the legislative branch can do to allow these survivors to move forward with their lives.