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We need more protections for sex-trafficking victims

Donna Bruce, a sex trafficking survivor from Baltimore, is lobbying the General Assembly for laws that would enable her to clear her criminal record. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

In Maryland, sex trafficking victims can have embarrassing and trauma-inducing convictions of prostitution cleared from their records. But their past still follows them because other crimes they may have been forced to commit by their traffickers remain on the books.

As The Sun’s Catherine Rentz reported, that is one of the factors that makes Maryland one of the worst in the nation in helping trafficking victims clear their criminal records, according to a study by the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law in collaboration with other groups.

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It may not be worth the effort for some victims to get the prostitution convictions lifted if other arrests that don’t reflect their rehabilitated life remain. Making it even more discouraging is that the process to do so is wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape, including required approval from the state’s attorney’s office.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have some sort of sex-trafficking statutes so victims can get clean records, and Maryland ranks last in the strength of those laws. It could be worse — 10 others have either no way for victims to make their records disappear from public view or only have such protections for minors.

Still, Maryland can do better.

Lawmakers had the right idea in mind in 2011, when they made their original attempt at criminal record relief. The law was pretty progressive at the time. Now that they have learned the law’s weaknesses, legislators should pass a measure pending in the General Assembly that would expand what records can be cleared.

Sex trafficking survivors, who are frequently introduced to the trade by abusive boyfriends or even callous parents, shouldn’t feel shame. But they often do. Sometimes they turn to sex trafficking because they are desperate for money and see no other way.

Traffickers who control their victims with violence and intimidation often make them commit other crimes, such as theft or drug use. Victims are also commonly arrested for having false identification or trespassing. These kinds of crimes could be erased under the sex trafficking legislation moving through the General Assembly. The proposal would also take state’s attorney approval out of the equation, making the process of removing convictions easier.

Victims told researchers involved in the University of Baltimore study — which was co-authored by researchers from The Brooklyn Law School, the Survivor Reentry Project and the non-profit Polaris — that having their records cleaned made it easier to heal from the stigma of having been sex trafficked.

It also removed some of the anxiety and stress that came with searching for an apartment or job by saving them from the embarrassing process of having to explain a prostitution conviction to potential landlords or employers.

There’s no clear statistic on the number of people with criminal records related to victimization through sex trafficking, but the University of Baltimore and its partner researchers gathered evidence to give them an idea — and they believe the problem is big.

A survey by the National Survivor Network (run by Polaris) found that 91 percent of 130 people who were once involved in sex trafficking had been arrested. More than 40 percent had been arrested nine times or more, and 73 percent said they lost jobs or couldn’t get employment because of convictions. The National Human Trafficking Hotline was in contact with 3,712 potential victims from Jan. 1, 2015, to June 30, 2018, who had interaction with police or the legal system.

Those who are lucky enough to escape their traffickers and try to lead a new life shouldn’t have to deal with a record that was a result of their victimization. Online court records allow anyone to figure out a person’s past within just a few minutes, and some people may not be so forgiving. Former victims have reported being ridiculed and embarrassed by others who have discovered their history.

This doesn’t have to happen.

Eight years ago, Maryland lawmakers tried to do the right thing for victims — now they should finish the job.

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