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California voter initiative would strengthen penalties for traffickers

Leigh Cuen
SF Public Press
 — Feb 24 2012 - 2:17pm

This special report appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.

A California group dedicated to stopping human trafficking is hoping to take its fight directly to voters this fall.

In January, the nonprofit advocacy group California Against Slavery began circulating petitions to get a measure on the November 2012 ballot to strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws. The measure is called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, and the campaign has mobilized hundreds of people around the state to collect the 800,000 valid signatures required for the measure to make the ballot.

Among the harsher penalties on traffickers and provisions to protect victims, the act would:

  • Increase criminal penalties on human traffickers, require them to register as sex offenders and make them report private Internet access to law enforcement
  • Use criminal fines to support victim services
  • Require all police to undergo at least two hours of training on trafficking and how to treat victims
  • Prohibit evidence of a victim’s past sexual history from being used in a trafficker’s trial 

In 2009, Daphne Phung first learned about human trafficking in the United States from a TV documentary.

“I was shocked by the lack of justice,” said Phung, who went on to found California Against Slavery. “We first circulated the petition two years ago, when the organization started, but couldn’t get all the signatures in five months.”

The initiative is a joint effort. Authors include Sharmin Bock, who spent 23 years as a prosecutor in Alameda County, which the FBI has identified as a hotbed of domestic human trafficking. Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer and head of global public policy for Facebook, wrote the proposed law’s digital penalty. The Polaris Project, another anti-trafficking organization, reviewed the petition as well. Phung said more than 1,000 volunteers from across California have contributed to the campaign.

The effort to put this measure on the ballot has some skeptics. 

“One gentleman told me the CASE Act wouldn’t pass — voters wouldn’t continue overcrowding prisons,” said Robert Joeger, a filmmaker from Orange County who volunteered his time creating videos for the organization. “But it’s not just going to be funded by tax dollars.”

Some question the statistics the group has used to promote the cause. Much of the initiative was formed on the recommendations of a 2006 study that Phung now acknowledges was outdated. Last June The Village Voice in New York criticized the methodology used to gather the statistics.

But backers of the initiative say they cannot wait for perfect studies.

“Trafficking victims don’t raise their hand,” said Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University, a Christian liberal arts college in Orange County. “No one with experience in this will give a flat number.” Morgan is also founder of Live2Free, a youth initiative against slavery and the former administrator of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, so she has seen many cases that don’t get officially counted.

“Some crimes related to human trafficking never show up in the statistics,” she said. “For example, it might have been prosecuted as a gang case.”

Morgan said more awareness is needed about labor trafficking and exploitation. “We find what we are looking for,” she said. “Sometimes immigrants fall through the cracks.”

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley is worried about the scope and implementation of the new voter initiative.

“I’m leery of laws that come to us through initiative process,” O’Malley said, noting that once they are passed they are difficult to amend if found later to be flawed. “You can’t change the initiative.”

Others in the legal system don’t share her concerns.

“I’m not political, but anything that can help us fight against human trafficking is a step in the right direction,” said Holly Joshi, head of the Oakland Public Defender’s Office vice and child exploitation unit, which has five officers.

“We are struggling,” Joshi said. “It’s the second-fastest-growing crime in the country. This crime has really gotten ahead of us. It has reached epidemic proportions.”

Law enforcement, service professionals in the field and activists said deep budget cuts have hampered their efforts. Joshi’s unit has no safe place for victims to stay, except for juvenile hall. She told of a young, domestically trafficked girl who was released from custody in 2008 to return to her family. The girl returned to her pimp, who killed her.

Trafficking victims talk of negative experiences and a culture of distrust between them and law enforcement.

Leah Albright-Byrd recalled her arrest at age 15, when she was already a victim of human trafficking. She described the tight clasp of handcuffs and how the police officer said she “looked like a hooker.”

“I was treated like a criminal,” Albright-Byrd said. Had that officer known what kinds of questions to ask, Albright-Byrd might not have remained a victim of human trafficking for three more years after that arrest.

When she was 14 a pimp convinced her that abuse and exploitation would be inevitable parts of her life. He told her that she “might as well get paid for it.” She recounted how he used words like “love” and “protection” as weapons.

Today, Albright-Byrd is executive director of Bridget’s Dream, a nonprofit dedicated to advocacy, prevention and victim services. She works with California Against Slavery as a speaker and educator.

Phung acknowledges that the two-hour police training the initiative requires would not by itself form bonds of trust with victims. “This is only the beginning of awareness,” Phung said.

Yet offering more training for law enforcement had dramatic results in Orange County, said Live2Free founder Morgan.

“They start to see cases that were there all along,” she said. “Now they are able to recognize and prosecute them.”


There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

As an update, Nancy O'Malley is now in support of the CASE Act and will be formally endorsing it!

I checked out that article, and it really just seems like the author is Christian-phobic, and doesn't like Republicans. The article points out how Washington state hadn't had any human trafficking cases within the first year and a half after outlawing it. This could very well be because the new law didn't adequately fit the crime. In California, the sentence for human trafficking is only 3-8 years. Attorneys currently apply different legislation that gives the criminal a harsher punishment, like rape or kidnapping charges, which are considerably higher sentences. Attorneys are most-likely familiar with the laws that they've been using up until the new human trafficking law was put in place.

A 2005 United Nations report based on reported cases of forced labor found at least 12 million people worldwide, including people in the U.S., are held in modern slavery and sex trafficking. The U.S. State Department has put the number even higher in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, saying as many as 27 million men, women and children are living in such bondage.

What about all of the victims that have shared their stories???

The conflation of prostitution with human trafficking is practiced by groups whose main agendas are not about human rights. The linked article says it better than I ever could.

It is inevitable that the dialogue on human trafficking and prostitution are interconnected. The Seattleweekly article posted above by the Thirdeye is troubling. While I understand the need to be cautious and aware of what a movement entails, I find it concerning that some people would rather spend their time breaking down the numbers of victims, supporter motivations, etc than put all of their energy behind a valid and pressing human rights issue.

Additionally, thank you to SF Public Press for shining a light on what the California Against Slavery is striving to do with the CASE Act. This initiative is a crucial step in the right direction for the fight against trafficking in all of its forms.

Well said - the focus on human trafficking is far overdue and Prostitution is intricately intermingled with Trafficking as it is with other types of crimes and violence. It is time everyone wakes up and that they quite representing Prostitution as a victimless crime. It hurts individuals and the community in many different ways. Any human trafficking is heinous and should not be tolerated.

Well said - the focus on human trafficking is far overdue and Prostitution is intricately intermingled with Trafficking as it is with other types of crimes and violence. It is time everyone wakes up and that they quite representing Prostitution as a victimless crime. It hurts individuals and the community in many different ways. Any human trafficking is heinous and should not be tolerated.