Amy is 16 years old. She has survived abuse at home and is being sex trafficked on the street in a nice suburban town in Ventura County. Like Amy (whose name has been changed to protect her), dozens of young girls and boys in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation and are often recruited by their own peers for a pay bonus.
Because of real cases like this, there is a growing awareness in the United States of human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation. This is not simply a problem in other parts of the world, and it doesn’t just consist of individuals brought across international or state borders. The recruitment and exploitation goes on here in our own hometowns, and foster youth, homeless individuals, and survivors of domestic violence are particularly susceptible.
We must remain committed to fight perpetrators who manipulate children for personal gain. Existing law offers judges very little flexibility when they determine the sentencing of these heinous criminals. This often results in inadequate sentences that are not sufficient deterrents against repeat criminal behavior, or sentences that are inadequate given the nature of the trafficking operation in question. That is why I have introduced AB 2513, a bill to provide judges with the discretion to consider the vulnerability of the victim as an aggravating factor when sentencing human trafficking criminals.
Proposition 35, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act initiative, was passed back in 2012 with 81 percent of the vote. The initiative increased prison terms for human traffickers, required convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, directed criminal fines from convicted human traffickers into a fund for services to help victims, and mandated law enforcement training on human trafficking.
Unfortunately, the CASE Act does not have a provision that protects victims who are especially easy to target. AB 2513 amends the CASE Act to specify that when sentencing an offender convicted of human trafficking, California judges have the discretion to consider as an aggravating factor the fact that the defendant recruited, enticed, or obtained the victim from a shelter or placement that is designed to serve runaway youth, foster children, homeless persons, or victims of human trafficking or domestic violence.
The deliberate targeting of vulnerable groups of victims should be considered an “aggravating factor” for at least two reasons. It reflects premeditation on the part of the convicted party to purposefully seek out a particularly vulnerable person as a victim. Additionally, it undermines the principle that society has a special responsibility to protect its most at-risk citizens.
Several circumstances can increase a victim’s susceptibility, such as homelessness, belonging to a foster program, or being a victim of domestic violence. For these individuals who have already had their ties to society frayed, being trafficked can be particularly harmful. Victims targeted from their foster homes, for example, lose contact with their community and have their education and development impeded.
According to the Human Rights Project for Girls, in 2013, 60 percent of the child sex-trafficking victims recovered as part of a FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes. This statistic reveals an unsettling fact: Criminals who engage in human trafficking keep watch on foster youth, because they know they represent a vulnerable population.
Foster youth in our community should not be entering a system where they fear being subjected to unsafe care. Foster youth should be placed in loving circumstances that will protect them from exploitation. It is vital to our public safety that we create stricter laws; otherwise our youth and at-risk individuals will continue to be targeted for human trafficking.
I believe AB 2513 can keep criminals from getting comfortable by targeting “easy prey” who they can utilize for their own financial gain. By not taking action today as a state, we are saying it is okay for criminal groups to continue to abuse foster youth. That is unacceptable! Should AB 2513 become law, California will continue to blaze a trail for the rest of the country to follow.
Foster care is a positive and vital program that aims to protect children, not lead them further into a life of neglect and negativity. My goal is to relentlessly improve our valued foster care system despite the attempts of criminals to do otherwise.
I ask the community to join with me in supporting AB 2513 to protect the members of our society from human trafficking, slave labor, and sexual exploitation. We can only fight these illicit behaviors by having laws on the books to thwart criminals from causing harm. By passing AB 2513, the children of our community will be safer. n