Home Politics California politicians spiral over sex trafficking bill: ‘Pick pedophiles or children’

California politicians spiral over sex trafficking bill: ‘Pick pedophiles or children’

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with then-Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove, of Bakersfield, Calif., after giving his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 12, 2019. | Courtesy Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

A leading advocacy group combating child sex trafficking declined to support the bill, saying it’s unlikely to actually fight child sex trafficking

Alex Shultz | SFGate

The California state Legislature twisted itself into an extra-salty pretzel this week over a bill that claims to combat child sex trafficking.

On Tuesday, Democratic members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee initially shelved Senate Bill 14, the child sex trafficking bill in question, which was written and proposed by one of the state Senate’s most conservative members. By Thursday, after intense blowback, Democrats had reversed course and rushed to back the bill — which isn’t supported by one of California’s leading advocacy groups combating child sex trafficking — in large part because, practically speaking, the bill isn’t going to do much of anything to combat child sex trafficking.

SB 14 would categorize child sex trafficking crimes in California as a “serious felony,” which would add it to the list of crimes eligible for sentencing enhancements under California’s controversial “three strikes” law. In other words, repeat child sex traffickers — or child sex traffickers with other “serious felony” strikes on their records — would potentially receive lengthier prison sentences and fewer parole opportunities.

On May 25, the state Senate passed SB 14 in a 40-0 vote after it was narrowed to focus on child sex trafficking. But this week, after the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee unexpectedly rejected that narrowed version of the bill and prevented it from getting a full Assembly vote, conservatives jumped at the chance to shame Democratic politicians.

On Tuesday, the bill’s author, Republican state Sen. Shannon Grove, tweeted, “I am profoundly disappointed that committee Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to support the bill, with their stubborn and misguided objection to any penalty increase regardless of how heinous the crime. Human trafficking of children is a growing tragedy that disproportionately targets minority girls, and California is a hotbed because of our lenient penalties. The sad reality is that trafficked children on Figueroa Street and across California will continue to be raped and victimized until Assembly Democrats take action.”

Pedophile insinuations were bandied about on social media on Wednesday into Thursday, a tradition that has become increasingly normalized in conservative circles; Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Republican from Ripon, even told his colleagues that with this bill, they could “pick pedophiles or children.”

The attack line worked like a charm. Democrats in the legislature spent Wednesday and Thursday falling over each other to affirm to the public that they’re not pedophile fans.

“On Tuesday, I made a bad decision,” Assemblymember Liz Ortega tweeted. “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.” Gov. Gavin Newsom, perhaps leery of having this bill thrust in his face in 2028, also spoke out on Wednesday to voice his interest in saving SB 14. He indicated he’d had productive conversations with Grove, the bill’s author.

Grove, for the record, was the state Senate’s minority leader from 2019 to 2021, but lost that title after tying herself a little too closely to former President Donald Trump; the Los Angeles Times previously reported that she retweeted false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election and claimed that “Antifa” was behind the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the Capitol.

And so, on Thursday, the Public Safety Committee took up the bill it had just squashed two days prior. This time, it passed out of committee 6-0. It’ll be examined by the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee in mid-August, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Child sex trafficking crimes already carry heavy penalties in California, including up to life in prison. When someone is facing human trafficking charges, they’re typically facing other lengthy sentences on often-related charges involving kidnapping or drugs. And interstate human trafficking cases often end up garnering federal charges, further diluting the applicability of SB 14.

There are also plenty of legitimate reasons to be concerned about the language in punitive bills about human trafficking, said Leigh LaChapelle, associate director of survivor advocacy at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST). LaChapelle told SFGATE that CAST has had clients who were trafficking victims, were forced to traffic other people, and then were charged with trafficking crimes themselves. Victims of human trafficking — including children, as well as adults who were victims of trafficking when they themselves were children — are taking an enormous risk by coming forward to report these crimes, they said.

“The criminalization of human trafficking survivors creates insurmountable barriers for survivors to report and ultimately get to prosecution and, even more importantly, to heal. Survivors are often charged with crimes that are the results of their trafficking,” LaChapelle said. “So they’ve got charges for solicitation, they’ve got charges for other things they were forced to do, like working within the drug trade or some sort of fraud, etc. Oftentimes, law enforcement will say, ‘You have to testify, or we’ll charge you with this,’ or, ‘You can get these charges dropped, but only if you cooperate.’ These patterns of force, fraud and coercion that traffickers use are also being used within our criminal legal system to get people to cooperate. We can’t expect survivors to want to come forward if the process is not designed to protect them.”

LaChapelle stated that Grove’s office previously met with CAST, seeking the group’s support on SB 14. CAST declined, because alongside many other human rights organizations, the group generally doesn’t support sentencing legislation.

“We do not believe that it addresses any of the societal conditions that contribute to trafficking,” LaChapelle said. “Human trafficking laws tend to be very carceral and very reliant on the prison system. And we do not find that this actually reduces trafficking in a substantial way or provides any services to survivors. But it is very popular on a legislative front, because it offers a seemingly easy solution for the public.”

LaChapelle noted that CAST isn’t opposing SB 14; the group just has far more pressing legislative priorities than a bill that won’t prevent human trafficking.

“I think there’s a misconception that people who are traffickers care about increased punishments for crimes, and that’ll ultimately divert them from committing the crime in the first place,” LaChapelle said. “But most traffickers don’t plan to be caught, and don’t think of themselves as people who can be caught. We have to start addressing root cause issues, we have to start addressing the vulnerability that makes someone susceptible to trafficking, instead of solely focusing on sentencing legislation after the fact.”

Most disappointing of all for LaChapelle was that other human trafficking bills — like the creation of a labor trafficking unit, as well as a “stakeholders’ alliance” that would’ve gathered experts, advocates and survivors to holistically examine how to best combat human trafficking in the state — didn’t make it through this year’s legislative session, even though they could have “greatly changed the scope of human trafficking in California. There was not as big of a push from the public or from authors to have votes reconsidered, or things of that nature,” LaChapelle said.

Instead, it was SB 14 that broke through, thanks to a conservative pressure campaign and some snappy headlines about Democrats ignoring a serious crime. The state Legislature is now in summer recess; assuming SB 14 makes it past its next hurdle after the recess ends in mid-August, the full Assembly will have until mid-September to pass a final bill.

A top legislative aide, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely and was granted it in accordance with Hearst’s ethics policy, stated that the missing context in the SB 14 drama this week has been maddening.

“The frustration is more around right-wing people are able to weaponize sensationalist accusations about sex trafficking that has no bearing on what is, in fact, a really serious issue,” the aide said. “Many legislators do work on human trafficking issues. … There are people who work on this issue year-round, and the way that their work is ignored while ridiculous accusations about bills that don’t matter dominate the headlines is frustrating.”

To that end: LaChapelle said servicing providers are “chronically underfunded” in their efforts to help trafficking victims, an issue that’s far from addressed as we near the end of the 2023 legislative session. CAST had requested $30 million over three years from the Legislature for urgent emergency human trafficking service providers in California, so they could “increase the state’s capacity for receiving/responding to hotline calls, identifying trafficking survivors, participating in first response to victims, and meeting basic needs such as housing, food, counseling and legal assistance,” LaChapelle said.

The Legislature instead agreed on a budget of $21 million for those service providers, they said.

“A lot of people would like the concept of protecting children to be simple,” LaChapelle said. “Unfortunately, protecting children in our country is not simple. It is a very complicated issue. It has a lot of nuance, and complications and nuance don’t make great media pieces. We cannot arrest and prosecute our way to a world free from human trafficking. Protecting children also means protecting them from housing inequity, the school-to-prison pipeline, being separated from their families within our immigration systems, and so much more.”

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