The Conversation: An initiative on the November ballot would toughen penalties for human trafficking
By: By Dan Morain, Senior editor
Published: Sun, 05/13 @ 12:00AM
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A car pulled up in the Mission District of San Francisco at 4 a.m., and a 15-year-old runaway girl from Sacramento climbed inside.
He parked in an industrial area and slammed her head into his lap. She fought, and he smacked her and drove her farther, threatening her life all the while. Then she noticed the photo of a girl on the man's dashboard, and asked if it was his daughter. It was.
"I'm somebody's daughter," she told him.
He jolted to a stop and released her. She returned to the streets, plying her trade, delivering her proceeds to her pimp.
From age 14 to almost 18, Leah J. Albright-Byrd worked streets in San Francisco and Sacramento, sometimes Las Vegas and Reno. Her pimp advertised her on websites that didn't question her age. Occasionally, she would fly to Los Angeles to meet up with men.
Albright-Byrd, one of the lucky ones, got off the streets and is dedicating herself to helping girls who are careening down the same twisted road she traveled. Now 28, she has joined the fight against human trafficking, an issue that Californians will confront this fall by way of an initiative called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act.
Although the concept of human trafficking draws skeptics who see it as a faddish name for an old crime, the United Nations estimates there could be 2.4 million victims today, and the U.S. Justice Department under George W. Bush and Barack Obama have declared war on it.
In California, Attorney General Kamala Harris, involved in the issue for years, is sponsoring bills in the Legislature that would allow prosecutors to more readily seize pimps' property.
The November ballot measure, which qualified last week, will bring attention to the issue as only a California proposition can. Voters almost always approve tough-on-crime measures. This one will be an especially easy sell. The crime strikes at basic fears of every parent.
The initiative would increase prison sentences for human trafficking to as many as 12 years, up from the current five-year max. If the crime involves minors and force, sentences could be 15 years to life. Fines could be as much $1.5 million.
I met Albright-Byrd in the classroom of Wind Youth Services, the drop-in center for homeless kids off Del Paso Boulevard, where she sometimes counsels girls headed toward where she has been.
We were joined by Daphne Phung, founder of California Against Slavery and the initiative's proponent. Phung, 37, came to this country at age 8 from Vietnam. Her father was a mechanic, and she went to Oakland public schools before getting degrees at Reed College in Portland and Mills College in the East Bay.
Phung was moved to get involved after watching an MSNBC documentary about human trafficking. Like Albright-Byrd, she is driven by her Christian faith. She is aware that many Southeast Asian immigrants are victims of exploitation. She also saw a disconnect between the ideal that there is justice for all and the reality that children are getting robbed of their innocence.
"We're talking about kids being raped, tortured. It appalls me," Phung said. "We have to make this a serious crime so that prosecutors will take it seriously."
Phung spent enough time in the Capitol to realize she could not persuade Democrats in the Legislature to approve longer sentences for human trafficking. Lawmakers are trying to reduce the prison population because of the federal court order requiring it and to cut costs.
She tried to qualify an initiative in 2010 with volunteers, but gathered nowhere near the 800,000-plus signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot. After speaking about the issue at a lunch in Palo Alto, she met a politically ambitious financial angel, Chris Kelly. Kelly gave $1.66 million to get signatures needed to get the measure on the 2012 ballot.
Kelly earned his money by working as Facebook's chief privacy officer. He quit in 2010 to run for attorney general, placing third in the Democratic primary despite spending $12.3 million of his own money.
He will run for office again, though he's not sure when. He knows, however, that promoting an initiative is not a bad idea for someone seeking to build name identification.
Kelly added provisions that would require people convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders and provide their electronic identifiers. Internet sites would be able to obtain that information and, presumably, ban them from their sites.
Kelly expects "dozens, not hundreds" of prosecutions, and envisions that prosecutors would target pimps and gangs that are involved in organized trafficking of large numbers women and girls, girls like Albright-Byrd once was.
Phung handed Albright-Byrd tissues as she told some of her story. She was a hard-to-handle kid from a broken home in at the south end of Sacramento. On the third time she ran away, she moved in with a guy she had met earlier. In short order, he told her to start bringing in money. She was 14.
She knew her mother was looking for her. But she didn't want to be found. She thought she loved her pimp. No doubt, his other girls thought the same thing. To dull the pain, she used all manner of drugs.
She was arrested many times under aliases. After getting busted with a john in Hollywood, she was released from jail with no money, and sold herself to buy a bus ticket back to Sacramento and her pimp.
"I had no idea how dark and ugly things could get," she said. "You start to believe all that stuff, that you're nothing, that this is all there is to life."
As she turned 18, her attitude began changing and she found God. She graduated from William Jessup University, a small Christian college in Rocklin, and has started an organization called Bridget's Dream, named for a friend who was a teenage trafficking victim.
In 2006, on her 22nd birthday, Bridget Gray was working at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, when she was strangled by a john from Santa Ana. Albright-Byrd knows she could have met Bridget's fate.
The use of initiatives to make criminal law is never ideal. Promoters don't have to find money to pay for their concepts. They all have unintended consequences.
On its face, however, the initiative would make important changes. It would strip some anonymity from the Internet, perhaps making it a little more difficult to buy and sell people on virtual bordellos.
On a more basic level, the initiative would alter the basic human trafficking equation. Once the initiative becomes law, the person who is bought and sold would be viewed as the victim. The true criminals would be the men who trade human commodity. That shift is long overdue.