The victims of sex trafficking often wind up with long criminal histories as a result of their forced lives of prostitution.
Obviously, the very act of prostitution leaves these women, and sometimes men, vulnerable to arrest. Controlling pimps and traffickers also force their victims to commit other crimes, such as theft or drug use. They may tell the victims to lie about their identity if confronted by law enforcement, and they can get picked up by police for trespassing while soliciting potential clients from street corners.
These criminal histories can haunt and follow former victims for decades, making it difficult to get a job, apartment or any other basic life need that requires a background check. Not to mention, it can be a humiliating roadblock to someone trying to move on from a traumatic past.
There are ways for victims to expunge their criminal records, but in a callous decision, the Trump administration has made it harder for victims to pursue that option and regain some of their dignity.
Ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department in August criticizing the department for blocking funding that would have paid for attorneys to help victims clear their records through by expunging their records or vacating judgments against them.
“Providing victims of human trafficking a fresh start through vacatur and expungement is an essential element of restorative justice and important to reducing future barriers to employment, housing, and education,” they wrote. “As Congress moves to buttress victims, the Department of Justice moved in the opposite direction by adopting policies that prohibit the use of grant funding for survivors of human trafficking to access critical legal representation that enables them to achieve safety and self-sufficiency by clearing their criminal record.”
Reps. Jarrod Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Karen Bass, Mary Gay Scanlon and Sheila Jackson Lee want to know what made the Justice Department decide to eliminate funding that has generally had bipartisan support. We eagerly await answers to their inquiry and hope it is not for political reasons.
The administration’s decision shows a total lack of compassion for victims who performed crimes while desperate, scared for their lives and under someone else’s control. (Many sex traffickers target vulnerable and impressionable minors and teenagers.) It is punishing people who have already suffered enough. For most sex trafficking victims, crime was just a part of life and something they couldn’t avoid.
In 2016, the National Survivor Network surveyed survivors of human trafficking and found that 91% of 130 trafficking survivor respondents had been arrested. Forty percent had reported being arrested nine times or more. The common arrests were for prostitution, solicitation, drug possession and drug dealing. 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.
These women and men who have overcome incredible odds don’t need to be reminded of a criminal past that came because of their victimization — and then have to explain away that past. They don’t need to worry about someone discovering their imperfect history through a simple Google search.
While many states, including Maryland, have laws that allow these victims to expunge or vacate their cases, it is costly to hire a lawyer, and public defenders don’t have the resources to cover all the cases. The use of federal grants once helped alleviate that financial burden. The administration has said it wanted to free up money for other services, but we think that was the wrong decision. Providing legal services is important.
The Trump administration could reverse its decision in future budgets, but we are not optimistic given its overall record on sex trafficking issues. A recent report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that federal prosecutions of those who sex trafficked children have dropped 26.7 percent over the last year. The report was completed in light of the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, the highly connected sex offender who committed suicide while incarcerated.
We urge Congressional lawmakers to keep pushing the administration for answers. Sex trafficking victims have a right to new starts with clean criminal records.