Lisa is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Sex trafficking and exploitation of young women and girls largely conjures up images of victims from countries outside the United States – girls from Vietnam, Ukraine, Mexico, etc. While certainly there is a growing and terrifying international trade in children and women, the unfortunate reality is that many commercially sexually exploited (CSE) children are born and raised here in the U.S. And this terrible crime happens close to home – local law enforcement estimates that approximately 100 children are sold for sex on the Oakland streets each night[1].

This November, Californians will have an opportunity to vote for a proposition that aims to tackle this nauseating, and expanding, industry. Prop 35 would expand and lengthen penalties for convicted traffickers, earmark funds for victim services and law enforcement, change criminal court proceedings in ways that protect trafficking victims, require training for law enforcement personnel, and change requirements for registered sex offenders. Since June, I’ve worked at an organization that provides mental health services to CSE children and youth in Alameda County and spent much of my time researching and analyzing policies that protect and serve these children. As such, I’ve thought long and hard about this measure.

Is Prop 35 perfect? No, it’s actually far from it. It’s vague and poorly written, an argument in and of itself for using the legislative process that offers checks, balances, and analysis. It promises to generate funds for victim services and law enforcement investigations but perhaps this is an empty promise since a large majority of traffickers are federally prosecuted[2]. It does nothing to address demand, focusing instead on prosecuting the suppliers by imposing hefty penalties (for example, increasing prison sentences from 8 years to life for sex trafficking of a minor with force). Yes, penalties for the sex trafficking of children need to be increased to reflect the severity of this abominable crime but the measure’s focus on prosecution and criminal penalties ignores the need for collaboration between service providers, law enforcement, prosecutors and child welfare agencies to effectively address this major abuse of our children.

While far from perfect, Prop 35 does take some important steps in protecting trafficking victims, particularly children who most need our protection. First, the measure removes proof of force or coercion to convict for sex trafficking of minors, bringing state law in line with federal law and acknowledging that minors cannot consent to sexual acts. Many sexually exploited children suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and many trauma-bond to their trafficker. They have long histories of abuse, neglect and multiple traumas, making the violence they experience in the hands of their traffickers not that different from their general experience of life. Removing the requirement to prove force or coercion enhances the ability to protect children and rescue them from the abuse of their trafficker.

Second, Prop 35 changes court proceedings and protects minors who are particularly vulnerable to influence and intimidation by their trafficker. Evidence of sexual conduct by a victim would no longer be allowable for the purposes of attacking the victim’s credibility or character in court. This provision provides trafficked victims with the same level of protection in court as a rape victim has under the Rape Shield Law. It recognizes that children have endured extreme violation and abuse, making it difficult (if not impossible) for victims to confront their perpetrators in court.

Now, will I vote for Prop 35 on November 6? I’m not sure yet. Many of the provisions are a vast improvement on our state’s dismal approach to protecting sex trafficking victims, especially children. And yet the focus of the measure on criminal penalties and prosecution of traffickers falls far short in appropriately addressing the complexity of this crime and the system wide support that victims need in recovering from their exploitation. It masks the hard work that our services systems and society need to do to eliminate this injustice. Our children absolutely deserve something better than being sold on the streets. I’m just not sure Prop 35 is it.

[1] Grady, Barbara . 2010. Youth Trafficking in Oakland: Big Business Despite Government, Police Efforts (Series Part 1). Oakland Local, May 5, 2010. Accessed 5/21/2012 at oaklandlocal.com/article/youth-trafficking-part-1

[2] Legislative Analyst’s Office. 2012. Proposition 35 – Human Trafficking. Penalties. Sex Offender Registration. Initiative Statute. Sacramento, CA: Legislative Analyst’s Office.