California voters to decide unusual measure on sex trafficking

California voters, no strangers to taxes, political districts and the clash of special interests, are in for a surprise in November when they get to a proposition that deals with a topic rarely listed on a ballot – human sex trafficking.

Proposition 35, dubbed the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, would expand protections given to victims of human trafficking in court and force stricter punishments for those convicted.

Another rarity for a statewide ballot issue: There’s little or no opposition to Proposition 35.

Polling done by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University shows support at 49% yes, 19% leaning towards yes, and 20% loosely saying yes.

That’s a lot of support, even in a state when ballot propositions traditionally lose ground as Election Day nears. But thus far, there is little opposition – who wants to go easy on human sex traffickers? – and the expectation more than three months before the General Election is that the measure will pass easily. The initiative’s ultimate impact, given the primacy of federal law in this area, is uncertain, but there is little doubt the measure is popular

“These poll results show that even on a crowded ballot, Proposition 35 stands alone as a clear choice for voters and our state,” said Daphne Phung, the founder of a human-rights group called California Against Slavery, which is leading the push for Proposition 35. Phung launched the group after watching a documentary in 2009 about slavery and trafficking.

Proposition 35 would expand the definition of a sex trafficking crime and allow cases involving minors to be pursued as human trafficking, even when they do not involve the victim’s coercion. The change would be added to the existing list of criminal violations associated with human trafficking.

The initiative would bring state penalties closer to the federal statutes, lengthening prison sentences by up to 12 years or 20 years to life, depending on the crime. Fines of up to $500,000 would be imposed on the offender, with courts raising the penalty up to $1,000,000 at the courts discretion depending on the severity of the crime.

Proposition 35 evolved from two bills that last year failed to make it through the Legislature, SB 57 by former Sen. George Runner and AB 755 by Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani. One feature of AB 57 contained in the initiative is the requirement that all sex offenders to register their online aliases with the state.

Phung sought to get a similar initiative on the ballot in 2010 but was unable to sufficient money and gather enough signatures.

The largest backer for Proposition 35, known as the CASE Act, is Facebook’s former Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly, who has donated over $1 million in support of the initiative. Kelly worked extensively at Facebook to improve the company’s procedures to eliminate sexual predators using the popular site.

Kelly also founded the Safer California Foundation, which eventually partnered with CAS to make sure the CASE Act would be on the Ballot for November.

“The goal is to give prosecutors a greater set of tool to work with,” said Kelly. “More high profile cases brought to state courts and greater penalties will help dissuade traffickers.”

A key point in the initiative prevents victims of human trafficking from their criminal sexual conduct used against them as evidence.
“Right now, victims would be potentially risking their lives testifying against their traffickers, who may only end up with four years of jail time,” Phung said.

“Victims of rape have the Rape Shield Law to help protect them, and this will help bring up the standard at which human trafficking cases are held to the levels of rape and domestic violence.”

Currently for cases of rape, the Rape Shield Law limits a defendant’s ability to be cross-examined about past sexual behavior.

The measure would reform the method for dealing with both human trafficking offenders and victims as well as expanding definition for human trafficking, but it was unclear how the state law would interact with federal law, noted Mac Taylor, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst.

“It is unknown whether this measure would significantly increase the number of state human trafficking arrests and convictions or whether most such cases would continue to be handled primarily by federal law enforcement authorities,” Taylor said in his summary of the initiative.

Cases that cross over multiple jurisdictions are usually handled by the federal government. “All funds seized by the state from traffickers, as well as those gathered from the fines paid by the criminals will be put to helping programs such which assist human trafficking victims, and train police officers to better handle human trafficking cases.”

The initiative’s costs include a one-time local government cost of up to a few million dollars on a statewide basis, and lesser costs each year, for training law enforcement officers in handling trafficking victims. Additional costs will be incurred both statewide and locally due to the increased number of incarcerated traffickers.

 Proposition 35 will be on the Nov. 6 ballot along with 10 other initiatives and referendums.

Ed’s Note: Corrects by removing reference to Children of the Night in 3rd to last graf.

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