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State lawmakers determining under bill to make child trafficking a “serious felony”

Posted by Sara Cooper | Aug 30, 2023 | 0 Comments

State legislature are definitely know to just pass or deny bills before making it to the appropriations stage generally. For this one, the controversy of it is no longer in the quiet proceedings like many others.

As a new bill, one that was in high hopes of moving forward but has had an interesting direction. Attempts in the past to reclassify human trafficking a minor for commercial sex acts as a “serious felony,” where it would be defined as a strike under the state's Three Strikes law.

In 2007, twice in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2017 and three times in 2021, legislators tried and failed to reclassify child sex trafficking. But then something strange happened after the latest effort went down, according to Cal Matters.

It was not shy on social media about the bill. Comments ranged from “What on earth were these Democrats thinking?” to accusations that they were siding with pedophiles — and at least one Democratic member of the Assembly Public Safety Committee that quashed the bill reported receiving death threats.

The bill had passed through the Senate swiftly, and the increase of allies was appearing thereafter. Governor Gavin Newsom at a press conference had expressed dismay at its failure, telling reporters that he'd reach out to the bill's Republican author, Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield. Newly seated Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, also said he was “very much engaged” in trying to move the bill forward.

The bill had passed in June under the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

According to state law, human trafficking of a minor for purposes of commercial sex under current law incurs a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. If the crime involved force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person, the sentence is 15 years to life. If the person is convicted of inflicting great bodily harm on the victim while trafficking them, a judge can add up to 10 years to a prison sentence.

With the child trafficking bill passing and if signed by Newsom, people convicted of the crime would face longer prison terms and potential life sentences.

This passing had legislative panic however, within a span of 48 hours of the original vote to the session on the bill being denied or approved, making that collision of the state pursuing progression of reducing incarceration in efforts with shifting severe crime laws and the way society views punishment.

More than a decade ago, then-Assemblymember Richard Pan tried to add five new offenses related to human trafficking and the abuse of a child to the serious felony list.

The 2011 measure never made it out of committee. Pan, a Democrat who was in both the Assembly and Senate, said he was not sure what was different this time according to CalMatters. 

“Sometimes you never know what gets the attention of the public,” Pan said. “There are these tensions (between reducing the prison population and harsher sentences). 

“But we don't start off by saying abusing children is not a serious crime.”

With progressive lawmakers hesitant to extend the harshness of legal consequences for sex trafficking due to its predicted contribution of extreme incarceration of Black people and the already intense prison sentencing happening for these crimes, this would all be relied on taxpayers' money while not seeing grand benefits from these changes. These harsher sentences from this bill would also mostly just apply to the lesser levels of trafficking where many were trafficked themselves.

“There is no evidence that long prison sentences deter or prevent crime,” the advocacy group Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition wrote in opposition to the bill. “If anything, low-level individuals involved in human trafficking will be prosecuted under this legislation, many of them will be prosecuted for conduct done under duress or other pressures, and they will be easily and swiftly replaced.”

“But nuance like that can be difficult, if not impossible, to persuasively convey in a political campaign, mentioned CalMatters, as this was a political move that conservatives in the blue state can dominate with. This ladder had quickly fell through after Democratic members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee abstained from voting on the bill Tuesday, effectively blocking it.

“You can choose a team, pick pedophiles or children,” Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Ripon Republican, said Thursday morning.

“I think certainly the thousands of social media texts we got, and me personally, the two death threats I got and the death threats made against my children certainly raised a level of concern in terms of making sure we had some resolution to this bill at this moment right now,” Assemblymember Mia Bonta, an Oakland Democrat, told CalMatters.

From the wild west of Twitter, one committee member had been convinced to change their mind with both Republicans and Democrats alike.

“On Tuesday, I made a bad decision,” Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Hayward Democrat, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong. I regret doing that and I am going to help get this important legislation passed into law.”

Ultimately Bonta and Assemblymember Isaac Bryant both abstained from voting on the bill in the Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on Thursday. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat and chair of the committee, said the vote was so markedly different from the original vote because questions he had about the bill were answered in the interim. 

Noting the death threats against Bonta, Jones-Sawyer said in a hallway interview that the “Trumpian hate … is just wrong.”  

“You can have an honest debate, but, my god, you should not threaten a woman because of her personal feelings on an issue,” he said.

Republicans were with great cheer in their accomplishment after the bill was passed through the Assembly Public Safety Committee, one that doesn't come often for the political party in California.

“In the end, my Democrat colleagues in the Assembly Public Safety Committee did the right thing and passed (the bill) that will make sure repeat offenders of child sex trafficking are held accountable,” said Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, a San Diego Republican. “If it were not for the extraordinary pushback from figures around the state and nation, I fear the Democrats' one-party rule and some of their radical ideologies would have prevailed.”

The bill's author, Grove, said in a statement that she expects the cooperation of Assembly Democrats should the bill reach the floor – its next stop is the Assembly Appropriations Committee. 

“Protecting victims of child sex trafficking should not be a partisan issue,” Grove said. “Today is a victory for every survivor.”

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