Imagine a young girl who has run away from an abusive home and meets a man who promises to take care of her. He gives her food, shelter, and love. As this relationship develops, this man alters his role from caretaker and lover to pimp and controller. Suddenly, this young girl is transformed into a sexual object, a commercial item to be sold. The security the pimp provided earlier is now a debt to be paid off.
All too often, a pimp identifies a child in desperation and exploits her vulnerabilities. The young girl described above is a clear victim of the crime of sex trafficking, as she was induced to engage in prostitution to satisfy her pimp. However, according to several state laws, she was also a criminal, guilty of exchanging sex for money.
Estimates suggest that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk of being induced into the commercial sex industry every year, and many of these children are prosecuted for, and convicted of, prostitution offenses. As a result, children who are victims of sex trafficking face cyclic vulnerabilities throughout their life. The criminal justice system is incapable of addressing the needs of sexually exploited and sex trafficked children if it inherently treats them as delinquent criminals.
Safe Harbor to Protect Sex Trafficked Children
Law enforcement often arrests both adults and children involved in the commercial sex industry, places them in lock-up, and initiates criminal prosecutions, thereby re-victimizing human trafficking victims. The good news is that this dynamic is starting to change. In more and more states, law enforcement is identifying these children as victims of a crime and giving them the opportunity to receive direct services.
This shift is occurring in states that have passed Safe harbor legislation, which recognizes that minors arrested for prostitution are actually victims of human trafficking that deserve services and support. Safe harbor laws shift the paradigm away from the criminal justice system and toward a child welfare response.
Vacating Convictions for Sex Trafficking Victims
However, the traditional treatment of prostitution as a nuisance and, by extension, of children in the commercial sex industry as delinquents has resulted in numerous prosecutions and convictions against human trafficking victims for engaging in prostitution offenses. These convictions can have unintended and devastating consequences in the future. For example, an adult or a juvenile with prior convictions is at risk of higher rates of unemployment because many employers refuse to hire convicted offenders. Beyond a simple criminal record, prostitution convictions carry a specific kind of stigmatization and invoke a sense shame against the children who were prosecuted for this crime.
Sex trafficking survivors, especially adult survivors who did not benefit from safe harbor laws, need additional protection. Vacating convictions legislation is a critical safeguard for survivors who have left their trafficking situations, but still have a criminal record. Such legislation permits victims of sex trafficking to ask a judge to clear his or her conviction for prostitution offenses because he or she was a victim of human trafficking at the time of the offense.
These provisions give survivors of sex trafficking the opportunity to clear their records and to obtain employment. Consequently, children who were induced to engage in prostitution no longer have that stigma attached to their names. They are free to pursue any career path and employment opportunities without the specter of a prostitution conviction hanging in the shadows.
Ultimately, a young, sexually exploited girl should not suffer further re-victimization after having been subjected to a heinous form of human trafficking. Safe harbor laws and vacating conviction legislation are crucial tools to helping survivors of human trafficking recover from their trauma and rebuild their lives.