A November ballot measure that would toughen penalties for human traffickers has hundreds of law enforcement and political endorsements, but it's also drawing some unlikely opponents: organizations that work to protect trafficking victims.
The opponents, who range from a South Bay nonprofit to a co-author of California's current law against trafficking, say that, instead of helping, Proposition 35 will set back their work by years. Chief among their concerns is the measure's focus on hefty penalties rather than a collaborative attack on the problem, which they say helps convict traffickers and protect victims.
"It incorrectly presumes that increased prosecution and protections of trafficking survivors is entirely premised on increased penalties and fines rather than a comprehensive approach," said Cindy Liou, a staff attorney at Bay Area-based Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach.
The proposition, which is being bankrolled primarily by $1.86 million from former Facebook executive and measure co-author Chris Kelly, would increase the prison terms for convicted traffickers from the current five to eight years to 12 years to life. It also raises fines from $100,000 to $1.5 million, money that would be routed to the fight against trafficking and helping victims.
The measure would force convicted traffickers to register as sex offenders for life and require police to get a minimum two hours' training on how to handle complaints of
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said the measure, which she supports, will boost trafficking prosecutions around the state by bringing attention to the crime. While her office has pursued 300 trafficking cases since 2006, some other counties California haven't filed any.
"I think it brings to the forefront that California will not tolerate human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of our children," O'Malley said. "It will recognize their victimization."
But those who work with trafficking victims are troubled by the measure's reliance on heavy penalties to fight trafficking. That approach, they say, ignores the victims, who are vital in building cases against traffickers and are the focus of groups such as Morgan Hill-based Community Solutions.
Perla Flores, a program manager at Community Solutions, said the measure's training requirements are negligible and the hefty fines could provoke convicted traffickers into seeking revenge on victims or their families. Also, there is nothing in the measure, she said, to encourage nonprofits, police, city services and victims to work together.
"The work of human trafficking, it's not just all up to the prosecutors," Flores said. "It's also everybody else who has been at the table for years, developing a system that's collaborative and victim-centered."
Flores' concerns are backed up by a draft report due this year from Attorney General Kamala Harris' office, titled "Human Trafficking in California." The report notes prosecutors need to collaborate with victim case workers. A strong rapport with victims leaves them more willing to share the kind of information that leads to convictions for traffickers.
Anti-trafficking advocates also condemn the discrepancy between penalties for labor and sex trafficking. The measure calls for 12 years behind bars for labor traffickers, while forced sex trafficking could mean 20 years in prison. Most victims don't end up in the sex trade, said Kathleen Kim, a co-author of AB 22, California's current human trafficking law. Yet Proposition 35 provides for lower penalties for labor victims.
While the nonprofit community has taken issue with Proposition 35, those in law enforcement have had far fewer reservations. District attorneys in Santa Clara, Alameda, Kern, Stanislaus and San Bernardino, and Contra Costa counties have lined up to support the measure. The San Mateo County district attorney has not taken position.
Kelly, who ran for state attorney general in 2010, said it's "borderline laughable" to suggest the measure could hurt efforts to stop trafficking.
"I think that having increased criminal penalties and a comprehensive strategy is only going to help trafficking prosecutions in California," Kelly said. He said he took on the issue after being shocked, during his time at Facebook, about what sexual predators thought they could get away with due to the presumed anonymity of the Internet. "This is a chance for the voters of the state of California to step in and say (to victims), 'We will protect you.' "
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.